The East China Sea ADIZ: Old Policy, New Packaging

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 17

China accused Japanese jets of buzzing Chinese patrols. (Credit: Xinhua)

China’s November 23, 2013 announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) covering much of the East China Sea sparked both controversy and questions about China’s underlying motivations (Xinhua, November 23, 2013). Beijing’s decision to create the ADIZ unilaterally, without prior notice and intentionally encompassing disputed territory, most notably the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Mandarin) in the East China Sea, made it a controversial action. It has been nine months since the ADIZ announcement, and the question must be raised, what has it accomplished for China? The evidence suggests that the ADIZ enables China to rebrand its incursions into the Japanese-controlled Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands as a “reaction,” highlighting Beijing’s political and non-military applications of the ADIZ. This shift in diplomatic tone has not been met by a corresponding shift in tactics, but rather a relative increase of now-routine incursions compared to the immediate months leading up to the announcement. By gauging how differently China and Japan have been behaving in terms of patrols and other military and quasi-military activities in the East China Sea, as well as examining broader national security policies and statements emanating from Beijing and Tokyo, we see that the ADIZ has not resulted in a surge of maritime activity in the area nor a massive spike in political tensions. However, it is yet another step in the deteriorating Sino-Japanese relationship that makes peaceful resolution of their East China Sea dispute less likely, and the nature of the ADIZ itself increases the likelihood of an air accident that could flare up into something more deadly.

China and Japan’s Regional Actions

While the ADIZ may not be an expansion of its historic claims, China is nonetheless utilizing it as a means of solidifying its physical and legal control. Beijing’s modus operandi in the East China Sea is to couch its actions as reactions to perceived provocations from Japan.

Since China’s declaration of an ADIZ over the East China Sea, the Chinese government has increased its reactions to Japanese sensitive reconnaissance operations (SRO) flights.  According to Japan’s Ministry of Defense, Chinese aerial intrusions into Japan’s airspace rose sharply to 415 in fiscal year 2013, an annual increase of 35 percent and the largest number since the ministry began releasing country-by-country data in 2001 (Nikkei Asian Review, May 3). According to Japan’s Ministry of Defense (JMoD), from April through September 2013, China conducted 149 air incursions around Japan. Yet from October 2013 through March 2014, that number jumped to 266, an increase of 78 percent (JMoD, April 9). The bottom line is that the number of PRC air incursions significantly increased after the declaration of the ADIZ. This should not be a surprise given that the ADIZ is, to a large extent, an expression of Chinese sovereignty over the East China Sea. For its part, China’s Ministry of Defense (CMoD) announced that it sortied 51 of its own aircraft on 87 SRO missions from November 23, 2013 through December 22, claiming its “routine patrols have beefed up China’s effective control over the ADIZ” (Xinhua, December 12, 2013).

Beyond mere numbers of sorties, the Chinese military’s actual air engagements have become more frequent than in prior years.  For example, in May, Tokyo alleged that Chinese jet fighters flew within 100 feet of Japanese propeller-driven reconnaissance planes in the China’s East China Sea ADIZ. More frequent Chinese sorties may also be provoking more frequent interceptions by Japan. In June, Beijing accused the Japanese Self-Defense Force of sending F-15s to trail a Chinese TU-154 plane on a regular patrol in the East China Sea, approaching within 100 feet of the Chinese plane. Tokyo denied this accusation (SCMP, June 13).

Security Policy and Diplomatic Reactions

While the Japanese government had already expressed interest in taking a proactive defense posture, the ADIZ intensified popular fears of China at home in Japan and created political cover for unpopular policy changes. Indeed, a June poll concluded that 85 percent of Japanese are concerned the countries might go to war (Today Online [Singapore], July 16). In December 2013, Tokyo approved its new National Security Strategy, along with updating its National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) from 2010 and its five-year Mid-Term Defense Program (National Security Strategy, December 17, 2013; NDPG, December 17, 2013; Mid-Term Defense Program, December 17, 2010). The NDPG outlines Japan’s defense posture over the next decade while the Mid-Term Defense Program sets out a five-year plan for procuring the necessary capabilities to fulfill the NDPG.

The net effect of these policies is that Japan will acquire 17 Osprey aircraft and three Global Hawk drones for its Self-Defense Force (SDF) from the United States. The Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) will acquire 52 amphibious vehicles for landing operations, along with maneuver combat vehicles with high running capabilities to replace certain tanks. The Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) will acquire at least 42 F-35A fighter jets to replace its ageing F-4EJ Kai Phantoms, three unarmed Global Hawk drones, and three air-refueling aircraft (IHS Jane’s 360, July 9; DODBuzz, December 18, 2013). Lastly, ground radar warning squadrons will be increased from eight to 28. On June 19, the Defense Ministry adopted a new strategy on military equipment that calls for further collaboration with other nations in the procurement of weaponry and enhanced capability to monitor and defend the nation’s outlying regions (Asahi Shimbun, June 20). It marked the first time in 44 years that the ministry made changes to its basic policy on military equipment production and technology.

Beyond procurements of new technology, Japan has also begun making organizational preparations for confrontation. Tokyo has also established a new policy coordination body similar to the U.S. National Security Council. Perhaps most significant is Tokyo’s commencing of the process of reinterpreting its constitution to participate in collective self-defense.  This represents a potential sea change in Japan’s national security policy, despite several remaining obstacles—Diet approval is still required and the Japanese public is cautious on the amendments (Global Times, August 6).

Japan’s SDF made several high-profile troop deployments to support its ability to maintain control of the Senkakus following the ADIZ announcement. Yonaguni Island, located 150 kilometers south of the Senkakus, is perhaps the biggest beneficiary of these decisions. On April 15, Japan’s Ministry of Defense announced its intention to deploy 100 GSDF personnel to Yonaguni by the end of fiscal year (FY) 2015 (JMoD, April 15). On April 19, Defense Minister Onodera broke ground for the construction of a new radar site and GSDF base on the island. The Ministry also announced a plan to create a new early warning squadron at the ASDF’s Naha Air Base on Okinawa, including E-2C AWACS and F-15 fighters. On February 3, the Sankei Shimbun reported that amphibious troops, amounting to three regiments totaling 2,000-3,000 personnel, would be deployed to the Sasebo naval facility on Kyushu by the end of fiscal 2018. On April 20, the Ministry of Defense announced the relocation of a squadron of four E-2C patrol aircraft from Misawa to Naha, Okinawa. The SDF intends to move Type 12 surface-to-ship missiles to Kyushu and Miyako Islands, likely to better defend Japan’s claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, according to local press reports (Naval Open Source Intelligence Blog, April 15). Lastly, Tokyo is beginning to deploy a GSDF unit on Amami-Oshima Island Japan Times, May 20). Similar GSDF units will be stationed on Ishigaki and Miyako Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, with each unit consisting of about 400 personnel.  The effect of these forces is both symbolic and substantive.  It provides symbolic support for the residents of these islands that Tokyo has not forgotten them.  Moreover, the radar installation will improve early warning capabilities against any encroaching Chinese civil and military presence.   

Complimenting its personnel and hardware moves, Japan’s military exercises have acquired an unmistakabley island-oriented mission. In January and February of this year, the U.S.-Japan exercise known as “Iron Fist” in southern California focused on invading and retaking an island (DVIDSHub, December 17, 2013). In May, the JSDF simulated defending an island from amphibious invaders. The unprecedented exercise was held on an uninhabited island 375 miles northeast of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and utilized 1,300 troops, as well as fighter jets and destroyers.

On the diplomatic front, Tokyo has enacted a full-court charm offensive with countries that are looking to potentially balance against Beijing, especially those who have territorial disputes with China. Between March and June of this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with his counterparts from Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Australia. Abe’s negative comments about China at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore were unmistakable: “Movement to consolidate changes to the status quo by aggregating one fait accompli after another can only be strongly condemned as something that contravenes the spirit of these three principles,” referring to international norms about the peaceful resolution of disputes (IISS, May 30). Abe’s visit to Australia highlighted the enhanced defense relationship, including a deal to transfer submarine technology to Australia and the first 2+2 Defense and Foreign Ministers meeting. Other notable meetings include Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida’s meeting with Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario at Hiroshima in April; Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera visiting Malaysia in April; and meeting with Prime Minister Najib and Defense Minister Hishamuddin Hussein; and Onodera’s June meeting with Vietnamese Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh in Singapore.

China has responded with its own soft power push, but with a much more domestic focus. Earlier this year, Beijing approved two new national holidays to mark the date of the Nanjing massacre and Japan’s surrender. Moreover, China marked the 74th anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident—the incident that marks the beginning of the second Sino-Japan War—on July 7 with an exceeding amount of ceremony.  Relations were especially colorful when both countries’ ambassadors to the United Kingdom accused the other country of behaving like the arch-villain Voldemort of the Harry Potter series (Guardian, January 6).

Continuing an Established Trend?

Was the ADIZ the tipping point in Sino-Japanese relations, or was it merely part of a continuing downward trend in bilateral relations over the East China Sea territorial disputes? Although Japan’s defense policy was officially adjusted after the ADIZ declaration, its increased defense budget for 2014 suggests that Abe’s government was already preparing to counter China’s action long before the ADIZ was announced. In August 2013, Tokyo announced an increase to its defense budget for the first time in 11 years and boosted Coast Guard spending as it sought to cope with mounting incursions near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands by Chinese ships. The defense budget rose 0.8 percent to ¥4.68 trillion ($51.7 billion), and the Coast Guard budget was slated to rise by 1.9 percent to ¥176.5 billion ($1.66 billion) for FY2014, its first expansion in six years. However, these decisions pre-dated the ADIZ announcement.

As comprehensively charted in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Comparative Connections, 2013 saw Beijing and Tokyo trading lectures and finger-wagging over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and their history (Vol. 15, Issue 3 [Janurary 2014]). In May and June of that year, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei volleyed rhetorical barbs with Japanese Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Nonaka Hiromu and Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio over the Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895, the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 and the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations in 1972.

On July 9, 2013, Japan’s Ministry of Defense released its 2013 Defense White Paper, a rallying cry over Chinese assertiveness (JMoD, July 9, 2013).

Japan also took several steps to rationalize its right to collective self-defense prior to the ADIZ announcement. In 2013, Abe was planning to loosen collective self-defense constraints by starting with Article 96 of the Japanese constitution, which stipulates the process for making constitutional changes, and loosen the amendment process to make other changes easier.  Abe also told the Lower House Budget Committee that there is a large gap between having the right of collective self-defense and being able to defend yourself.

Most significantly, in terms of maritime incursions, Chinese incursions into both contiguous and territorial waters of the Senkakus surged in September 2012 but have been slowly diminishing since August 2013 (Nikkei Asian Review, May 3).

Impact of the ADIZ

The ADIZ was not the tipping point for Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations nor in terms of maritime incursions. Overall, the downturn in relations started in late 2012 when the islands were bought by the Japanese national government, or even earlier when Japan arrested a Chinese skipper for ramming Japanese Coast Guard vessels near the Senkakus in September 2010. Most importantly, bilateral tensions did not start with the ADIZ announcement in November 2013. However, it has introduced a new level of risk in the region, by virtue of increased air activity that could lead to an unintended conflict. The two countries now must be able to prevent escalation of such incidents if they occur.