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Last Updated: 12/16/2013
China's ADIZ: A New Phase of the Pacific Arms Race
Kiho Kwon

This paper offers an in-depth analysis of the history, status, and implications of the recent air defense identification zone (ADIZ) disputes in Northeast Asia involving China, South Korea, Japan, and the United States. The interests and actions of all parties are considered in light of the larger political and economic trends in the region, as well as the legal basis for claiming an ADIZ. Strategies to re-frame and deescalate the conflict and avoid military confrontation are suggested.


US Military in the West Pacific, Reuters

The many territorial disputes and increased military activity in Northeast Asia nowadays conjure up images of the Cold War. However, the differentiated points from the Cold War age are firstly, that the epicenter is the Pacific rather than Europe, and secondly, that economic factors are driving events rather than ideological confrontation. Thus we see that the US' pivot to Asia comes in the context of more than a decade of reckless anti-terror war and its aftereffects, and, especially, an economic downturn symbolized by the mortgage crisis in 2008, while China's rise as a regional power comes after a period of significant economic growth and after the country has entered into an era of unprecedented global impact. Given these trends, and the extent of US military presence in the region [1], the US' “rebalancing policy” has raised legitimate Chinese security concerns, and virtually all governments in the region are responding with greater militarization. This kind of Pacific arms race is reaching a serious condition, especially in Northeast Asia, which is also related to the Japanese movement for collective self-defense rights.

The Chinese declaration last November 23rd of a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) brought new implications to these disputes. To begin with, China's new ADIZ (CADIZ) overlaps with the Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese ADIZs and includes the Senkaku islets (Chinese: Diaoyudao) that China, Taiwan and Japan all claim to their dominium. In addition to this, the measure has raised the possibility of a physical confrontation higher than ever by covering an air training area of US forces in Japan. It is important to point out that only 20 countries have ADIZs, none of which are regulated by any international body or relate to any international law, and thus, the battle over sea and land is expanding to the air as the Chinese government proclaims their growing influence through this international legal weak point.

A chain of events leading to the present situation has its own long history, but the basic problem is that each country involved is focusing on the logic of national security, which is escalating rather than resolving regional conflicts. Although ADIZ is not a line of sovereign airspace, thanks to its ambiguity, it has provoked each civilians’ patriotism and governments have allowed angry public opinion to dictate reactions, rather than looking towards long term solutions and the security of all.

This paper will thoroughly consider the historical factors that have brought us to the present ADIZ conflicts in order to understand the purpose of Chinese strategic decision making and the neighbor countries reactions. Finally, I will suggest that a focus on human security and diplomatic conflict resolution over national security and military antagonism would be in the best interest of all parties.

Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone, BBC

The Root Cause of the Conflict

Most of all, what is needed is a rightful conceptualization of ADIZ. ADIZ is not directly recognized by international law; it has the purpose of identifying flight tracks in order to ensure national security and generally has a theoretical basis in international law as a Precautionary Principle. For applying this principle, the threat has to be serious and clearly irreversible [2]. With these legal aspects in mind, it is important to look over the history of ADIZ.

USA declared the world’s first ADIZ, which was intended to prevent further disasters such as the Pearl Harbor air raid by Japanese military on December of 1941 [3]. Also, they activated Japanese and Korean ADIZs with military strategic purpose during Korean War in March of 1951. Ironically, the US declaration of ADIZ in post WWII from the Japanese attack is now promoting regional conflicts among China, USA, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. According to Chaos theory, sometimes unexpected causes lead to unexpected results. Probably, the current confrontation of ADIZ is such a situation.

The conflict in East Chinese Sea traces back to almost 100 years ago. The Treaty of Shimonoseki of April of 1895 recognized the status of Japan on the Korean peninsula and Taiwan by the victory of First Sino-Japanese War, but did not directly specify the Senkaku islets, which were belonging to Toucheng Township in northeast Taiwan [4]. Additionally, in the process of negotiating the Treaty of San Francisco, which dealt with the division of Japanese territory after the collapse of the Empire in WWII, USA wanted Republic of China on Taiwan to represent China, whereas the United Kingdom tried to invite the People's Republic of China as a Chinese representative. For these reasons, neither Chinese government finally were invited and the problem of Diaoyu islets naturally was excluded from an object of this treaty [5].

Since then, The United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands (USCAR) issued Civil Administration Ordinance No. 68 (Provisions of the Government of the Ryukyu Islands) on February 29th of 1952. And USA on December 25th of 1953, expanded its jurisdictional territory to Diaoyu Dao – Senkaku island [6]. Afterward, this area was transferred to Japanese territory when USA receded their conquered territory back to Japan in 1972. During this time, USA and Japan signed an agreement, the Okinawa Reversion Agreement, which transferred all control over the Ryukyu Islands and Diaoyu Dao to Japan. From that time, USA has supported the Japanese government in the Senkaku island dispute. All things considered, it must be understood that the history of such confrontation is quite long and complex. The current problem of Chinese ADIZ is not just the problem of the ADIZ itself, but contains a long history of conflicts.

Another point that must be considered is that this ADIZ conflict is not China's responsibility alone. South Korea has excessively developed its military alliance with the US with the purpose of checking North Korea, especially after the Cheonan Navy Ship incident on march of 2011 [7], and Japan has strived to overcome their lost history by means of conservative swing and militarization [8]. Meanwhile, USA has buttressed, to some degree, a Korean and Japanese priority policy for national security, all of which has caused Chinese concerns over national security. In particular, the US strategy to ‘Pivot to Asia’ is clearly designed to contain the emergence of China [9] and limit the scope of Chinese influence in the region.

Clearly, the current disputes in East China Sea have been intertwined with political and economic problems; the US neo-strategy of ‘Rebalancing’ in the Pacific Asia region cannot be separated from its economic interests in the region, such as the ‘Trans-Pacific Partnership,’ and, in order to confront this, China has developed a ‘New Type of Great Power Relations’ and its economic regrouping on ‘ASEAN+3.’ In this way, regional tension in Northeast Asia involves a degree of complexity that cannot be analyzed with one parameter.

The Chinese Drastic Step

Chinese Department Ministry Spokesperson Yang, China Military Online

Then, what is China's ultimate goal? Was the declaration of ADIZ an expression of Chinese ambition for hegemony? Of course, China has tried to secure their core interests in the region continuously. Especially, the disputes in Chinese South and East Sea have indicated such efforts as a way of protecting the ocean sovereignty with the so-called Island Chain Strategy. However, this declaration of ADIZ was quite different from their traditional pursuit of national security. That is, this is an entirely new attempt. Firstly, the disputes in the oceans have now been expanded to the air, and secondly, in terms of a line of defense, this new ADIZ was the first Chinese anticipatory action against USA, Japan and South Korea, which they were not expecting. This kind of anticipatory military strategy astounded neighboring countries and it seems like this action will empower the assumption of Chinese rising and its threat, which has been the narrative of realists such as John Mearsheimer [10].

Somebody once said that imitation is the mother of creation. In this sense, the Chinese announcement of ADIZ is quite clearly modeled on US military strategy from the Cold War era. Isaac S. Fish points out this context and accurately illustrates such Chinese strategy as follows :

For years, Beijing's elite officials have been debating how to learn from other great powers. In 2006, for example, the release of the 12-part documentary series "The Rise of the Great Nations," about how countries like Portugal, Russia, and the United States built their empires, stirred wide debate on how China should act as it rises. The conclusion Xi seems to have drawn is that the United States is China's best model. “Selectively ignoring international norms or bypassing international institutions when they don't suit you -- it's a sense that they're a great power and can act more like how they perceive the United States,” says Kleine-Ahlbrandt. "They're looking at how great powers instrumentalize the system” [11].

Such kind of Chinese movement will be first case that actualized in earnest their Anti-Access strategy, after all the time they have spent preparing for it. China has made thorough preparations for the conflicts over disputed sea, purchasing their first air carrier, Liaoning, on September 25th of 2012, and now they are also trying to build their ability for space warfare. In addition to these elaborate plans, China strongly demands that neighboring countries accept such Chinese efforts and capabilities by unilaterally declaring the ADIZ. In other words, this declaration is an announcement of China's new stance; a clear message that they will not anymore passively respond to the US ‘siege’ strategy against China. China has taken an active step, and left the administrations of USA, South Korea and Japan facing the tough decision of how to respond.

The Inappropriate Responses

Japanese Response

Japan showed an extreme response to China's new ADIZ as the Chinese action further frayed already strained ties related to the Senkaku islands issue. Japan already warned China not to fly over Senkaku Island and stated that it will consider military responses such as Japanese military intercepting Chinese airplanes [12]. For this reason, there is a sense that China is responding to the Japanese strategy. Japan has clearly maintained that their native aircraft will not comply with China's ADIZ, raising the possibility of a clash [13].

In addition, Japan established Japanese National Security Council (NSC) by November 27th. The first matter of the NSC, which opened the meeting last December 4th, was an issue regarding Chinese ADIZ [14]. The Air Self-Defense Forces of Japan decided to establish a permanent unit of early warning aircraft in Okinawa Prefecture to strengthen surveillance of Senkaku Island [15]. USA is likely to go along with this movement of Japan, and as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said “We will respond firmly but calmly with a strong determination to defend Japan’s land, sea and airspace.” in a meeting with US Vice President Joseph Biden on December 2nd, it looked like Japan tried to check Chinese movement on the strength of US supports. Especially, being jumped on the logic of Chinese threat, the Japanese firm conservative swing and military buildup have been boosted.

South Korea’s Response

The Korean reaction is not significantly different from the Japanese. Rather, in certain aspects, Korea has shown a more intensive face. The Defense Ministry of South Korea, not long after the Chinese declaration for ADIZ, strategically brought their press corps and visited Ieodo, which is another disputed island between China and South Korea (Chinese: Suyanjiao), On December 2nd.

The Aegis destroyer ROK’s Yulgok Yi at the Ieodo, Dec. 2. The Kyunghyang Shinmun

Ieodo is not exactly an island, but a reef. Now South Korea actually controls that island but it is interlinked with each interest of China, Korea and Japan. Ironically, Ieodo has belonged to the Japanese ADIZ for the past 60 years, but suddenly came under an intense spotlight of ROK media as it also falls under the new Chinese ADIZ. Responding to public opinion, South Korean government quickly announced their own new ADIZ, just 20 days after. Of course, the new Korean ADIZ includes Ieodo. Nonetheless, the sky over Ieodo is now in the absurd situation of belonging to the three different ADIZs of China, South Korea, and Japan.

Moreover, the Defense Ministry of South Korea is also reconsidering it as an operational area of the military and in the last joint chiefs of staff council, South Korea decided to push forward a new fleet to protect Ieodo, and will construct an Air Force tanker and Navy maneuver AEGIS fleet, which all are only focusing on military means. Regarding this expansion of Korean ADIZ, although China expressed regret on the issue, they sent a toned-down message to alleviate the tension. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Monday that “China is ready to maintain communication with the ROK side in line with the principle of equality and respect” [16].

United States Response

Just one day after the Chinese announcement on the new ADIZ, USA ordered B-52 air bombers into that region. Then, the following day, US government presented an ambivalent attitude by asking commercial airlines to follow the Chinese new policy. This decision may be related to the distinct characteristic of the US to impose extreme standards of commercial air safety due to the reflection of 9/11 terror attacks, but that news was an unpleasant surprise to South Korea and Japan. However, it is noteworthy to examine US hidden motives further by describing US Vice President Biden’s Eastern Asia tour. USA claims the role of the mediator as of now, and outwardly insist on negotiation, but their basic position is likely to be the maintenance of the status quo in Northeast Asia.

In a meeting with Biden, who has called for “high level engagement with China”, Chinese President Xi commented that “To enhance dialogues and cooperation is the only correct choice for us [17].” But as Biden told reporters in a joint news conference with Abe, “We, the United States are deeply concerned by the attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea” [18]. Thus, when it comes to reality, USA takes Japan and South Korea’s side. This kind of direct and indirect backing to US allies will be naturally connected to the effect of checking China. Perhaps, this situation will be, strategically, in the best interests of US.


To sum up all the sequence of events up regarding China's new ADIZ, each measure and reaction of each country is going in concert with their domestic political circumstances. None of these measures toward this issue can be appropriate responses as long as each country tries to use this situation for their own purpose. The Chinese creation of ADIZ can be interpreted in an aggressive way by neighboring countries but, for China, their main goal is to defend core interests and their strategy is a natural outcome to some degree in consideration of the current JADIZ and US strategic focus in the Asia Pacific region. What is more significant about all of this is the problem of framing ADIZ as sovereign airspace. This effect of framing provokes infringement of sovereignty, and thus stimulates the patriotic emotions of citizens.

Authorities must be carefully observing this situation from a long-term point of view. Just obsessing about the logic behind security, every country could miss the underlying problem of this conflict. As mentioned above, disputes around the Chinese ADIZ are not just about the ADIZ, nor are they just about security matters, as they also involve long-standing historical, economic, and more complex factors. On the contrary, each country needs to recognize these conflicts as a new source of creativity and an opportunity for negotiation. For example, this conflict could be a good opportunity to create a peaceful inter-government panel in the region, to actualize the administration of mutual crisis management. The situation has also demonstrates the need to refine the notion and international legal basis of ADIZ. Limitless and emulous expanding of ADIZ by each country, rather, can incite more conflicts as things go in this region. In other words, the line of defense for national security is inversely damaging their security.

In conclusion, the name of the game in this conflict is asking whether such situations can be beneficial or not. Japan and South Korea, by taking advantage of US military power, will never yield in such situation despite the Chinese high-intensity stance in the East China Sea. USA also does not want to encourage a stronger China in this region. Nevertheless, the people need to be constantly vigilant about the dangers of a pessimistic view. Exaggerated claims about the Chinese threat and security discourse are not in the best interest of all sides. Instead, standing by the human security perspective that the arms race in Pacific Asia region eventually threatens the safety of all people, this paper carefully suggests that each country’s citizens, in solidarity with each other, propose an alternative voice to their administrations, which are obsessed by the logic of security.


[1] US Military in the West Pacific - Graphic of the Day | The Knowledge Effect [Web log post]. (n.d.). Retrieved from

[2] Abeyratne, R. (2012). In search of theoretical justification for air defence identification zones. Journal of Transportation Security, 5(1), p. 89.

[3] Shimatsu, Yoichi (2013). US-Japanese Militarism and China’s Air-Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over Disputed Islets. Pretext for Another Pacific War? | Global Research. (n.d.). Retrieved from

[4] Full Text: Diaoyu Dao, an Inherent Territory of China. (n.d.). Retrieved from

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Bechtol Jr, B. E. (2010). The Implications of the Cheonan Sinking: A Security Studies Perspective. International Journal of Korean Unification Studies, 19(2), p. 30-32.

[8] China Strategic Culture Promotion Association (2013). Japanese Military Power 2012. Retrieved from

[9] Glaser, B. S. (2012). Pivot to Asia: Prepare for Unintended Consequences.2012 Global Forecast: Risk, Opportunity, and the Next Administration, 22-24; Natalie, L. (2013, June 7). China Sees Threat in US Pivot to Asia. Voice of America. Retrieved from

[10] Mearsheimer, J. (2005). The rise of China will not be peaceful at all. The Australian, 18, 14.

[11] Fish, I. S. (2013, November 29). Imitation Is the Securest Form of Flattery. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from

[12] Beech, H. (2013, September 18). Angry Skies: Japanese Jets Scramble as Tensions With China Escalate. Retrieved from

[13] KAMAISHI (2013, December 1). U.S. gov't did not ask airlines to give flight notice to China: Abe. Mainichi [Kyodo]. Retrieved from

[14] Japan launches U.S.-style National Security Council. (2013, December 4). Shanghai Daily [TOKYO]. Retrieved from

[15] ‘Integrated mobile defense’ unveiled. (2013, December 12). The Yomiuri Shimbun. Retrieved from

[16] China regrets ROK air zone expansion. (2013, December 9). Xinhua [BEIJING]. Retrieved from

[17] Tiezzi, S. (2013, December 5). Biden's China Visit: A Failure to Communicate. The Diplomat. Retrieved from

[18] Biden: US 'deeply concerned' by China's air zone. (2013, December 3).Retrieved from

Kiho Kwon graduated from Korea Air Force Academy (major: military science and national security) in 2008 and retired from the Korean Air Force as a Captain (Public affairs officer) 2008~2013. Currently, he is in the HUFS-UPEACE Dual Master program (major: Media, Peace and Conflict Studies). His research interest is Peace and Security Discourse analysis, especially in Northeast Asia and the Korean peninsula.