Written by Corey Wallace.

If China’s recent announcement establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) was concocted as part of a strategy to put more pressure on Japan in order to force it to come to the negotiating table on the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, it shows a clear lack of understanding about the motivations and likely responses of regional stakeholders.

As noted elsewhere, the establishment of the ADIZ in of itself need not have been an inherently provocative gesture. From a broader Japanese foreign policy point of view, however, there are a number of problems with the recent announcement. For a start, the lack of consultation, or even prior notification afforded to Japan before the ADIZ was announced, seemed to fly in the face of recent low-profile diplomatic efforts to improve relations between Japan and the PRC ongoing in the background. The fact that the East China Sea ADIZ covers the Japanese administrated Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands will of course be the major issue however. While the implementation of an ADIZ is not in formal terms a claim of sovereignty, it is certainly likely to be interpreted that way in Japan. It does, after all, raise the possibility in the future that the PLA may seek to assert influence over Japanese civilian and military air traffic transiting through territorial space around the islands. This would modify the current status quo and further challenge Japan’s effective administration of the islands.

Risks and dangers

The ADIZ, if implemented in practice, will also reignite pre-existing concerns among the Japanese security community about the haphazard behaviour of the PLA and Chinese maritime authorities. The prospect of “emergency defense measures” being carried out if a civilian Japanese aircraft fails to provide the required information to the Chinese side within the ADIZ is in itself worrying. This will be all the more concerning because the Japanese security community is unconvinced about the integrity of the PLA’s chain of command, the transparency of defense decision-making processes, and, in general, the exercise of civilian control over the PLA and other security agencies in the PRC. The “painting” of a MSDF destroyer and helicopter at the start of this year reinforced such concerns. While most Japanese security experts and policymakers readily accept that the Chinese government does not ultimately want to be involved in a military conflict, the promulgation of this new ADIZ raises the prospect that accidents may take place, especially if rogue elements within the PLA get carried away, as expressed by former Minister of Defense Morimoto Satoshi. A minor incident could well precipitate a wider crisis that neither side could easily back down from.

This is because the new ADIZ, if enforced, increases the likelihood of direct and potentially dangerous military on military engagements between Japan and China within the large areas in the East China Sea where the ADIZs of both countries overlap. Contestation over maritime control of the Senkaku Islands, while concerning, has generally taken place between Chinese and Japanese civilian agencies with less firepower at their disposal. Earlier this year a civilian maritime surveillance Y-12 aircraft entered the airspace over the Senkaku Islands, leading to the Japanese government responding by scrambling fighters. The next time such an event happens, the PLAAF and the ASDF may well encounter each other directly. Even if the two sides are only willing to go as far as engaging in non-forceful aerial games of cat and mouse, “mock dogfights” within ADIZs can still end very badly. This is all the more problematic given that the Chinese government has resisted engaging with the Japanese government on putting into place necessary confidence building and communication measures, such as military hotlines, that prioritize conflict management.

Reinforcing Negative Perceptions about Chinese Foreign Policy Aims

The Chinese government is increasingly perceived in Japan to be implementing a calculated and “staged” approach to undermining Japan’s claims to the Senkaku Islands, and using antipathy towards Japan as a justification for pursuing a more expansive military policy. For example, in September 2012, the PRC submitted to the United Nations the coordinates for demarcating the territorial seas around the islands. This was identified a precursor to maintaining a routine presence in and around the islands, and since this point incursions in the territorial waters around the islands have rapidly increased. Just two days prior to the ADIZ announcement, it was reported in Japan that Chinese maritime authorities had escalated the stakes again by boarding Chinese fishing vessels in the EEZ waters around the Senkaku Islands. It was confirmed by the JCG that this had happened three times since August, 2013. The ADIZ will therefore be interpreted as a signal of a Chinese intention to further implement its jurisdictional claim.

Indeed, Japanese media has been quick to explore the dangerous implications of the new ADIZs. For example, the Yomiuri labelled China’s action of declaring an ADIZ that includes airspace over islands under the administrative control of another nation to be of “an unusual nature in the international community.” The ADIZ move is seen as providing further evidence of Xi Jinping prioritising China’s “great power” ambitions, rather than steering China towards becoming a cooperative player in building a mutually beneficial East Asian regional framework. Xi’s advocacy for a “New Type of Great Power Relations” for managing future diplomacy, which excludes the interests of regional and global players other than the United States or the PRC, has also not gone unnoticed in Japan. The Japanese media has even reported that various Chinese diplomatic sources have admitted that hard line elements within the Chinese government and the PLA have settled on a strategy to challenge Japan on the Senkakus, to drive a wedge through the US-Japan alliance, and take a hard-line towards relations towards Japan in general. This strategy was apparently consolidated at the end of the recent third plenum, which saw China setting up a National Security Council, and Xi Jinping noting that China needed to directly face external and internal threats to China’s sovereign rights and national security. As such, the East China Sea ADIZ will be seen as setting the stage for a long-term exercising of military influence in the area, especially if the PRC goes on to announce a similar zone for the South China Sea.  With the maiden South China Sea voyage of the Liaoning also being heavily reported in Japan, Japanese politicians and officials have quickly moved to discussing extending Japan’s own ADIZ eastwards to cover the Ogasawara islands in anticipation of future Chinese aerial activity on the back of its new ability to project aerial power.


The Japanese media has enthusiastically noted the stronger and decisive American response to this incident in particular. The immediate B-52 flyover into the newly declared ADIZ, the strong American reaffirmation that the Senkaku Islands are covered by the Mutual Security Treaty, and the strong language used by top American officials, including new ambassador Caroline Kennedy, will reassure the Japanese that it has diplomatic support for Japan pushing back against China’s unilateral assertion of the ADIZ over the Senkaku Islands. Furthermore, as noted by David Cohen at the Jamestown Foundation, the ADIZ fiasco will make it “difficult for the PRC to sustain its account of itself as reacting to Japanese provocation.” Indeed, normally passive observers, such as Australia and even Germany, have expressed explicit concern over China’s actions in this case. The international community may well increasingly come to see the strengthening of Japan’s defense posture as a valid response to perceived Chinese provocations.  A fundamental component of this policy is the strengthening of Japan’s ability to defend, and if necessary, retake any of its 6,800 “offshore” islands. Japan is in the process of establishing a specialised amphibious unit modelled on the US Marines, the purchase of Ospreys, the stationing of ASDF fighters on Okinawan islands, and the establishment of a GSDF monitoring station on Yonaguni Island as part of program to strengthen Japan’s offshore island defense capabilities.

It may also precipitate further US-Japan coordination, especially as this incident appears to have angered the full spectrum of the US security community. Subsequent to the recent Security Consultative Committee meeting, the two governments agreed to revise Guidelines for Defense Cooperation by the end of 2014. The joint statement from the SCC meeting noted that the new guidelines would “aim for ‘seamless bilateral cooperation in all situations’ and ‘appropriate role sharing of bilateral defense cooperation based on the enhancement of mutual capabilities’.” The US also welcomed recent policy initiatives in Japan, such as the establishment of its own NSC, an increase in Japan’s defense budget after a decade of gradual reductions, and proposals to reinterpret Japan’s constitution to allow for the exercise collective self-defense. While the Japanese public currently remains opposed to significant increases in defense spending, and suspicious of the implications of Japan embracing its right to collective self-defense, recent actions by the PRC raise the possibility that the conservative vision of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo may face less public resistance than it otherwise would have.

Corey Wallace is a Lecturer in the Political Studies Department at the University of Auckland. He teaches courses on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific region and his research specialization is Japan’s evolving security policy.

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