Beijing priming itself as a norm-maker

JUDGING from the recent response to the new air defence zone set up by China, Beijing's rationale behind the move - the need to boost national security - and its assurance that freedom of flight will be protected, seemed to have fallen on deaf ears. Why are regional states afraid of and against China's desire to protect itself? How has the new air defence identification zone (ADIZ) undermined US ability to ensure peace and stability in the region?

To answer the first question, one has to acknowledge that regardless of China's ability to defend its ADIZ, regional countries and the US do not have the effective means to pressure China into retracting the zone or prevent Beijing from creating others over the South China Sea.

  • First, there is no legal recourse to pressure China. Although the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation provides that a state has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory and adjacent territorial waters, for up to 12 nautical miles from the coast or coastal baselines, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) does not regulate ADIZs.
  • Second, the scale of economic interdependency between China, its neighbours and the US effectively rules out the possible use of economic sanctions on China. Given that it is the second biggest economy in the world, China has sufficient capacity to withstand short-term sanctions and impose its own counter-measures. The same cannot be said of the smaller regional countries. The bans on the export of rare earth metals to Japan and the import of bananas from the Philippines bear testimony to Beijing's ability and willingness to engage in economic warfare.
  • Lastly, China's considerable nuclear arsenal and its rapidly expanding air and naval forces would make any country think twice about using military intervention.

It is no secret that the People's Liberation Army Air Force and People's Liberation Army Naval Air Force are relatively inexperienced, as compared to the US military, in conducting interceptions of foreign aircraft. While most military forces are generally guided by a set of rules of engagement (ROE) which indicate unacceptable measures during interceptions, the Chinese military and paramilitary forces do not have a clear set of ROE.

This, coupled with the tendency of Chinese military and law enforcement forces to take the law into their own hands in the name of patriotism, heightens the risk of miscalculation in mid air.

China's ADIZ over the East China Sea also raised questions over America's role as the traditional guarantor of peace and security in the region. The deployment of the B-52 bombers and an aircraft carrier strike group in the ADIZ can be seen as a show of US defiance and its reassurance to allies that it is committed to maintaining stability in the region.

However, such tactics may be effective only to a limited extent. The US would be unable to provide daily escort for hundreds of civil flights passing through the new air zone even though there are American airbases in nearby Okinawa.

Furthermore, the US ability to manage the situation is further complicated by the lack of a direct and effective Sino-US military-to-military communication.

A month ago, the Japanese Kyodo news agency obtained an internal Chinese military document on the ADIZ, which hinted that the Chinese had made sure there are no international rules concerning the establishment of such zones.

While there is a set of internationally accepted norms guiding the ADIZs, such a zone has no basis in international law and is not overseen by any international organisation.

This legal ambiguity gives Beijing much leeway in determining how it wants to administer the new ADIZ. The Chinese decision-makers can strengthen their aerial military presence in the zone and undercut that of their counterparts.

In sum, the ADIZ can be seen as the latest in the string of "rightful" measures by Beijing to resist or challenge the established order in the Asia-Pacific region and to prime itself as a norm-maker, rather than an obedient norm follower.

Wu Shang-su is a research fellow in the Military Studies Programme and Irene Chan is a senior research analyst in the China Programme, at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.