China’s establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over most of the East China Sea on November 23 erases any doubt about the international community and the U.S.’s long-standing efforts to persuade China to become a “stakeholder” in the international order. These efforts have failed at a major juncture of what constitutes international order: the right of innocent passage through international waters and airspace.
China has been contesting territorial claims of various of its neighbors in the South and East China Seas for years now — with Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan, to name a few. But China’s newly declared ADIZ should not be confused with an attempt to increase security. It is, rather, a power play aimed at establishing the subordination of neighboring states, extending China’s territorial reach in other disputed areas, and the narrowing of legitimate South Korean and Japanese Air Defense Identification Zones which are now intersected by China’s, and about which no previous dispute existed.
The contest with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, located in the East China Sea, is a proximate cause of China’s most recent action. The newly announced Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone is a polygonal shape that extends eastwards from a point north of Shanghai deep into the East China Sea and parallels the Chinese coast at a distance of about 400 miles closing back toward the mainland just north of Taiwan. China will require aircraft that pass through this zone to identify themselves or face what government spokesman Qin Gang said was “an appropriate response according to the different circumstances and the threat level that it might face.” This is a not-so-veiled warning that China may use military force to assert its claim. The Chinese have no legal basis to make this demand of aircraft that transit international waters. It is as though the U.S. were to extend the limit of North American airspace by several hundred miles and demand that aircraft — including commercial aviation — that pass through it identify themselves or risk being forced to land, or more dire consequences.
The implication for China’s claim of sovereignty over the international waters of the South and East China Seas is plain enough. If allowed to stand, Beijing will have advanced the objective of resolving in its favor territorial disputes with its neighbors as it succeeds in changing the heretofore accepted international definition of a sovereign state’s waters, that is — for most security purposes — 12 miles distant from its coast’s low-water line, and 24 miles for purposes of customs, immigration, and sanitary laws and regulations. The Senkaku Islands are about 350 kilometers east of China’s coast.
Japan’s leaders have been sufficiently alarmed by China’s increasing assertiveness in the region to act. They have good cause. China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, laid down by the Soviet navy and purchased from Ukraine, was commissioned a little over a year ago. Beijing plans to build its own carriers in the future. The maiden flight of China’s first stealth drone, called Sharp Sword, took place on November 21. The most current U.S. Defense Department report on Chinese military developments is abundant with reports on new classes of Chinese submarines, modernized tactical fighters, surface ships, and missiles. Tokyo is increasing its military expenditures, enlarging its submarine fleet, and this past summer launched its largest warship since World War II, the 19,500 ton helicopter carrier Izumo. The West Pacific arms buildup does not stop in East Asia. Australia is expanding its conventional submarine force as domestic analysts argue about whether the staying power of nuclear-powered submarines makes more sense. Southeast Asian states are adding to or in some cases creating amphibious capability.
Not a small part of the Asian arms race rests on America’s allies’ judgment about the Obama administration’s so-called pivot to Asia. In speech, the pivot is encouraging. The hitch is the large cuts in the U.S. defense budget that will reduce the size, power, reach, and presence of U.S. forces.
But at least for now, the Obama administration has acted wisely in the face of China’s East China Sea announcement. B-52s launched from Guam on Monday the 25th and, without informing Chinese authorities, entered what China just days before claimed as its Air Defense Identification Zone. China did nothing. Freedom of navigation, both at sea and in the air above, is established by asserting the right of innocent passage. When Muammar Qaddafi declared his “Line of Death” marking off as Libyan territory the international waters of the Gulf of Sidra, American naval vessels challenged him and Libya initiated military force to uphold its claim. They were unsuccessful. Use—in the Libyan case, the U.S.’s forcible use—prevented abuse. Libya tried again in 1989 and lost again. The wrongful claim was not renewed.
China made no such mistake during Monday’s B-52 foray. But it will take more than a single flight of B-52s to prevent China from making good on its claims over international airspace. The Obama administration deserves credit for its swift action on Monday. It will earn greater respect from China as well as from our Asian and Pacific allies if the U.S. continues to assert its traditional insistence on freedom of navigation in the world’s commons.