Guest Contributor at SAIS Washington
The latest flashpoint in East Asia is China’s newly-announced Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), which covers the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and significantly overlaps with the defense zones of Japan and South Korea, both US’ allies.Thus, the mainstream media have interpreted it as an extension of both the Sino-Japanese territorial dispute and the Sino-US rivalry in the air.
As a Chinese national but not a fervent nationalist, I see this policy as a reasonable and good strategy to challenge Japan’s de facto control on the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. It is unlikely that the establishment of the ADIZ will lead to a high level of tension and military confrontation.
It is reasonable for China to establish the ADIZ unilaterally. No generally-accepted multilateral legal framework regarding ADIZs are available so far. Establishing ADIZs unilaterally is not rare in history. The US and Japan declared ADIZs unilaterally, which gives China sufficient reasons to start its emulation on the East China Sea.
Additionally, the ADIZ is probably the least aggressive policy among China’s policy choices which can challenge Japan’s de facto control on the disputed islands. An ADIZ is a defensive measure as it allows only the right of intercepting and escorting foreign aircraft but not opening fire. It is unlikely to incite armed conflicts in the region, but, at the same time, it is able to put pressure on Japan.
Tensions have been triggered but are unlikely to escalate, since both China and the US show no tendency to stoke the fire. First, boosting anti-Japanese sentiment does not seen to be an objective of the policy. The Chinese government seems to be intentionally limiting the exposure of the ADIZ on domestic media. Having talked to several friends living in Beijing and Shanghai, I am astonished by their indifference to it.
It is easy to recall the major anti-Japanese demonstrations in 2012 when the government allowed inflammatory media reports. However, this time the government has kept the ADIZ’ media exposure under a moderate level, which suggests that China has no intention to use the ADIZ to fuel nationalism.
Second, military confrontations are unlikely to occur. In the wake of the US B-52’s violation of the regulations of the new ADIZ, China’s inactive military response and diplomatic rhetoric expressed a strong signal that China sought to avoid military confrontation. And this signal is well-captured by the US, illustrated by the US commercial airlines’ compliance to the ADIZ and Joe Biden’s conciliatory speech during his visit in China. Although he urged China to cease inciting tension in the region, he did not urge China to repeal the ADIZ.
Clearly, military brinkmanship is not the first choice for both sides, as they both recognize the cost of escalation outweighs the potential benefit of the ADIZ. Therefore, this event is expected to be tackled through diplomatic channels rather than a toe-to-toe confrontation.