Safeguarding the Seas

How to Defend Against China's New Air Defense Zone

A helicopter of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force lifts off from the aircraft carrier USS George Washington.
A helicopter of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force lifts off from the aircraft carrier USS George Washington during Annual Exercise 2013. (U.S. Navy Handout)

Much of the coverage of China’s November 23 announcement of a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over waters claimed by Japan and South Korea has focused on the reactive and blundering nature of Chinese diplomacy. China’s sudden insistence on its right to take defensive action against foreign aircraft in this zone, the argument goes, was either an attempt to play to domestic nationalism or else to respond to Japan’s own increasing assertiveness in the region. Either way, the coverage concludes, China underestimated how quickly and vigorously other countries in the region would respond, including with flights directly into that airspace.   

The implication of this analysis, which may be tempting to the overstretched Obama administration, is that Beijing made a hasty move that the region will now correct with a little help from Washington. Unfortunately for the administration, however, this was not just an ill-conceived slap by Beijing against a testy Japan. The reality is that the new ADIZ is part of a longer-term attempt by Beijing to chip away at the regional status quo and assert greater control over the East and South China Seas.

To understand this reality, one must begin the story of the ADIZ before Japan’s nationalization of three of the eight disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands in 2012, which is where most assessments start. Over three decades ago, China and Japan agreed to set aside their disagreement over the islands and focus on a common problem: the Soviet Union. It was China that first nullified the understanding by staking claim to the islands in 1992. It was also China that, in 2008, began significantly expanding its maritime patrols in and around those waters. In recent years, the Chinese maritime services have conducted patrols at least once a day near the islands and have crossed Japan’s 12-nautical-mile border around the islands on hundreds of occasions. Meanwhile, Chinese navy units have circumnavigated Japan and conducted major military exercises on all sides of the Japanese archipelago. In other words, by the time Tokyo purchased some of the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands from private landowners in 2012, Chinese pressure had reached alarming levels for Tokyo.

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