The U.S., Japan and South Korea Flout China’s Air Defense Zone. What’s a Superpower To Do?

Beijing knew that rivals would soon test its controversial East China Sea Air-Defense Identification Zone, but this is all just part of a grander strategy

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Kyodo News / AP

U.S. Navy FA-18 Hornets cram the flight deck of the USS George Washington during a joint military exercise with Japan in the Pacific Ocean near Japan's southernmost island of Okinawa Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013

The Americans struck first. Just days after the Chinese had demarcated an air defense zone that includes skies over islands claimed by both China and Japan, a pair of U.S. B-52s flew through the controversial space, lingering for around two hours. On Nov. 23, Beijing had warned that flights crossing its newly designated East China Sea Air-Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) would be required to inform the Chinese of their flight plans. Planes that contravened the new rules would risk “defensive emergency measures,” said China’s Defense Ministry, even though China’s ADIZ overlaps with existing ones drawn up by three American allies: Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

(MOREAre China and Japan Inching Closer to War Over a Few Disputed Islets?)

But the American bombers ignored Beijing’s implicit threat. The Chinese military’s immediate public response? Silence. Then the South Koreans divulged that they had also dispatched a fighter jet to another part of the Chinese ADIZ that extends into Seoul’s own lines in the sky. Again, no forward notice by the Koreans. No speedy reaction from Beijing.

Not to miss out, Japan, too, confirmed that it had sent military sorties over the disputed islands without bothering to tell the Chinese. Relations between China and Japan have foundered in recent months over the disputed islands, which Tokyo administers, calling them the Senkaku, while the Chinese, who use the name the Diaoyu, have also laid historic claim

Finally, on Nov. 28, the Chinese reacted. Beijing announced it had sent fighter jets and an early-warning aircraft for a patrol of the newly minted ADIZ. Yet China’s Defense Ministry spokesman also cautioned on Thursday that it was “incorrect” to assume that China would shoot down any planes that veered into the ADIZ. “The specific measures that will be taken will be decided based on the specific situation and the extent of the threat being faced at the time,” said Col. Yang Yujun — as if that helped clear things up. (Any nation can create its own ADIZ, which holds no global legal significance and is different from a nation’s internationally recognized air space or an even more extreme no-fly zone.)

But by that point, online patriots had taken to Weibo, China’s social-media service, to mock their government for having set up an ADIZ, dangled the threat of military force at those nations that didn’t respect it — and then appearing as if they had retreated. “Where were our military hawks when the American planes came?” wrote Wu Zuolai, a Chinese writer, in an online commentary. “How will they clean up this mess?”

(MORE: Return of the Samurai: Japan’s Leadership Seeks to Recapture the Country’s Former Glory)

Others were more measured but their essential message was the same. This was an embarrassing come down for a rising power eager to stake its claim in East Asia and resolve various territorial disputes in it favor. A Nov. 28 editorial in the hawkish, Communist Party-linked Global Times was headlined “B-52s defiance no reason for nervousness.” But part of the article struck a cautionary tone: “We failed in offering a timely and ideal response… and [this] will probably even undermine the image of our military forces.”

The creators of the Chinese ADIZ, backed by the vigorous President Xi Jinping, surely knew there was a chance other nations would ignore the order to radio flight information to Beijing. (After all, Chinese pilots regularly ignore the part of Japan’s ADIZ that covers the Senkaku/Diaoyu islets.) Why, then, risk a backlash at home from a nationalist audience that might expect something Beijing isn’t likely to deliver?

Here’s one answer: Over the past couple of years, China has been busily assembling an architecture of territorial integrity to legitimize its claims. In the resource-rich South China Sea, where Beijing has disputes with several Southeast Asian nations over some reefs, shoals and islets, the Chinese government has reemphasized a nine-dash line on maps that essentially scoops out nearly the entire waterway as its own. Maps with the nine dashes now decorate Chinese passports, much to the chagrin of nations like Vietnam and the Philippines.

At the same time, China has built up the administrative might of the departments that claim purview over these contested specks of land. China has also dispatched ever more naval vessels to contested waters in both the South China and East China Seas. On the morning of Nov. 29, the nation’s first and only aircraft carrier docked at a southern Chinese naval facility in preparation for its inaugural training mission in the South China Sea. The day before, the Chinese Defense Ministry had said that it would be conducting regular air patrols of the new ADIZ. Crowded skies and waters — such is the new normal in a fraught East Asia.

MORE: China’s Restriction on Airspace Over Disputed Islets Could Lead to War