China’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) announcement on November 23, 2013 was one year ago, but frictions around the decision still remain. Tokyo insists that it rejects the ADIZ, and no Japanese civilian flights file their passage as requested. The United States has toned down its initial opposition, but no U.S. military planes obey Chinese demands of informing and identifying their routes prior to entry into Chinese ADIZ. Instead, following 2 strategic bombers’ unannounced intrusion on November 26, 2013, a good number of the intrusions continuously happen and the quite few of them are met with emergency interceptions through Chinese jet fighters scrambling. Nevertheless, it seems that China’s ADIZ setting is running like a “paper tiger” – Beijing has asked much but acts relatively little.

Yet, China’s ADIZ decision was not a gaffe. The decision holds weight for the Chinese PLA Air Force and Navy. First, China’s decision to declare its first ADIZ in the East China Sea signifies Beijing’s solid advancement of its air defense capability. Despite its self-restraint in enforcement, PLA may be proud that it ultimately made the step forward by adopting its own ADIZ after Japan, Korea, and Taiwan had declared their own. By proclaiming its ADIZ, the PLA Air Force was able to identify itself as an undeniable competitor in the West Pacific Ocean. The ADIZ is not an overt challenge the U.S. or Japan, but a clear proclamation of China’s extension of air defense coverage. China’s ADIZ, despite its controversy, has stood up under the formidable pressures of the United States, Japan, Australian and even Korea. Diplomatically, Beijing shows no sign that it will roll back or modify its decision. The United States labeled China as a “status quo changer”, and employed “muscle flexing” with the intrusion of two B-52 bombers last November, but Beijing cared little about these public statements or demonstration of might. Instead, Beijing may chuckle to itself because 60 commercial carriers have reported their routes of passage as China’s ADIZ asks for, including some U.S. carriers.

More importantly, China’s ADIZ decision keeps Japan under pressure. Given the vast overlapping area between the Chinese and Japanese ADIZs, Beijing now “legally” scrambles its jet fighters to move close to, and even encroach upon, Japanese surveillance planes in that air space. China-Japan territorial disputes over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands have escalated from the islands’ adjacent waters into air space contiguous to the Chinese coastline, where the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands are exactly located. Such a design is an intended one to put more pressures on the Abe Administration, which has rejected recognition of existing territorial disputes with Beijing. Japanese irritation is understandable, but China’s ADIZ has obviously enhanced its position in its contest with Tokyo over the sovereignty of these uninhabited islands.

In doing so, Beijing risks a great deal, as this could damage its ties with Tokyo and Washington. Furthermore, China’s ADIZ enforcement could result in an accidental air collision and even cause a military clash with Japan. That would truly be a disaster in East Asia. The ADIZ decision, however, has also revealed the Xi Jinping Administration’s serious resolve in wrestling with Japan over the disputed islands. Domestically, the ADIZ is conducive to Xi’s popularity.

One year after November 23, 2013, it is clear that Beijing does not want to be besieged with escalating tension simply due to its ADIZ decision. Nor does China have willingness to militarily coerce the disputed islands back, or overuse emergency aerial interceptions in its first ADIZ. China’s tough words on the ADIZ are a stark contrast to its actual, modest moves. But some low-intensity conflict over its ADIZ arguably satisfies Beijing’s presumed “squeezing tactic” on Tokyo. This is likely to continue unless Japan would rather alter its staunch position and recognize the existence of a Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute.

Moreover, with the ADIZ decision on the East China Sea, Beijing has managed to avoid damaging Cross-Strait relations – it did not cover Taiwan in its ADIZ and correctly calculated that the move would not disrupt ties with Taipei. The reality is that Taiwan’s KMT government also claims sovereignty over the islands although Taipei is not likely to align with Beijing in Diaoyu/Senkaku disputes. Because of significantly improved economic ties with the Mainland China, Taiwan expressed its concern over the ADIZ, but did not openly opposed it.

Nowadays, international curiosity has turned to whether China will declare an ADIZ in the South China Sea. Given the nature of concurrently choppy waters in the South China Sea, a new ADIZ decision would quite likely add to the tension. Beijing has not yet excluded the possibility of a South China Sea ADIZ. It seems unlikely that Beijing will make that decision soon, however. The reason for this is that there is no impending issue in the South China Sea that requires a new Chinese ADIZ at this time.

About Zhu Feng

Dr. Zhu Feng is Executive Director of China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University. He is also professor of international relations there. Dr. Zhu Feng used to be a professor at School of International Studies of Peking University and Vice President of Institute of International & Strategic Studies of PKU. He moved onto Nanjing University to head this new institution from August of 2014.