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Drawing Lines in the East China Sea

by Sheila A. Smith
December 6, 2013

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks after a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing December 4, 2013 U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks after a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing December 4, 2013 (Lintao Zhang/Courtesy Reuters).

When Vice President Joe Biden originally planned his trip to Northeast Asia, the policy agenda for each of his stops differed. In Japan, the Trans-Pacific Partnership was high on his list; in Beijing, it was cementing his friendship with China’s new leader, Xi Jinping; and, in Seoul the road ahead in coping with Pyongyang seemed most important. Liz Economy does a terrific job of evaluating the vice president’s impact in China, and Scott Snyder offers his insights on how Biden managed the sensitive diplomatic moment in Seoul.

Overriding these bilateral conversations, however, was Beijing’s announcement of a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) days before the vice president’s arrival. Whether it meant to or not, China put the region’s tensions on the front burner of the Biden visit, and highlighted the role of the United States in balancing a rising China.

The ADIZ announcement was a surprise to all, but clearly startled China’s neighbors the most. Both Japan and South Korea maintain their own ADIZs, and the newly announced Chinese ADIZ coordinates overlap with both. Included in the area of overlap are islands and rocks where sovereignty is disputed with China. The turbulent dispute between Tokyo and Beijing over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands strikes a deep nerve for the Japanese government.

But the South Korean government is also concerned over the inclusion of the Ieodo or Socotra Rocks (Suyan for the Chinese) in the new zone. South Korea asked Beijing at a defense ministerial meeting to rescind the section that overlapped with the South Korean ADIZ. China refused, prompting Seoul to reconsider its own ADIZ boundary. Expect to see new lines being drawn by the ROK that will affect relations with China and Japan too. Unlike Beijing, Seoul is likely to take a more measured and consultative approach to revamping its thinking about its offshore airspace.

The United States issued a stern rebuttal, indicating that the ADIZ would have no effect on U.S. military operations in the region. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel issued a statement within hours of China’s announcement, refusing to acknowledge China’s ADIZ but also reiterating the U.S. position on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. To make the point, two B-52 bombers on an annual exercise north of Guam travelled north into the ADIZ on Monday.

The ADIZ affects civilian airliners also, and the United States and its allies differ on their policy guidance for domestic carriers. The State Department’s announcement that U.S. civilian airliners would be expected to conform to China’s requirements in submitting flight plans created some waves. The governments of Japan and South Korea have taken a different tack, instead telling their civilian airlines not to report flight plans to Beijing. Pitting civilian airliners against Chinese military jets, however, seems unwise, especially until it becomes clear how Beijing will seek to implement the rules of its new ADIZ.

So why announce an ADIZ given the already tense relations in the East China Sea? China likely had two motives. The first was related to the territorial dispute with Japan. By announcing the ADIZ, China upped the ante on the effort to undermine Japan’s administrative control over the islands. Already, the Chinese Coast Guard (formerly the Marine Surveillance Agency) has challenged Japanese Coast Guard control in and around the Senkakus. Navies of both countries continue to stand back from the islands, but maintain a wary vigil across the East China Sea. Surveillance by civilian and military aircraft has also increased over the past year, prompting heightened sensitivity to the potential for airspace violations.

Second, Beijing’s ADIZ corresponds roughly to the perimeter of its continental shelf and thus to its claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the East China Sea. The ADIZ announcement, therefore, is a logical extension of China’s effort to assert its interests beyond its coastal waters, and presages perhaps a similar effort to extend its ability to control the airspace above its EEZ elsewhere. The East China Sea ADIZ could offer a template for the South China Sea and perhaps even the Yellow Sea.

The more important question was why Beijing decided to announce it days before the U.S. vice president arrived in the region? As a result of the announcement, Vice President Biden’s trip took on a far different meaning. While some see this as a direct challenge to the Obama administration’s “rebalance to Asia,” others see it as evidence that Beijing continues to misread the impact of its actions. It could simply be that Beijing is following its own interests, and this ADIZ is part and parcel of a broader strategy of extending its control outward, pushing back those who encroach on its defenses.

No matter what the Chinese intention is, however, the Obama administration will find it increasingly difficult to straddle its relations with Beijing and relations with its regional allies. The expectation of Tokyo and Seoul is that the United States will take a stand against Chinese efforts to impinge on their security interests. The maritime exercise with Japan on November 25 demonstrated that the military cooperation between Tokyo and Washington remains sensitive to Chinese actions.

More difficult to meet is the expectation that Washington will persuade Beijing to step back from its early claims that it will “use its defenses” equally against any traffic, military or civilian, passing through the East China Sea airspace.

Lines keep being drawn in the East China Sea, giving the militaries of the region ever more reason to increase their interactions and proximity to each other. Maritime boundaries in the East China Sea are disputed, and claims to sovereignty over offshore islands and rocks are part and parcel of a broader jostling for maritime control. Chinese, Japanese, South Korean, Taiwanese, and U.S. militaries all operate in the East China Sea. Regional fishermen compete fiercely for dwindling populations of fish, and the ever illusive energy potential in the deep waters off the continental shelf drive the competition for EEZs. In this crowded maritime space, no one agrees on where the legitimate boundaries are, but all continue to assert that their lines are the ones that must be respected. While scholars in China back up their country’s right to an ADIZ, it is clear that the unilateral assertion of Chinese interests has rattled security planners across Asia. The ADIZ announcement has set Beijing and Washington openly at odds.

Vice President Biden’s trip to Northeast Asia was meant to deepen the personal leadership ties with China’s new leader. President Obama and President Xi began that effort this summer at Sunnylands, but for whatever reason, President Xi tempered his hospitality this time with a good dose of strategic challenge. Digesting the conversations the vice president had in Asia will undoubtedly take some time, but make no mistake, the U.S. relationship with China has just taken a more precarious turn.

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