(James Steinberg, dean of the Maxwell School at Syracuse
University, was deputy secretary of state from 2009 through
2011. Michael E. O'Hanlon is senior fellow at the Brookings
Institution. The opinions expressed are their own.)
By James Steinberg and Michael E. O'Hanlon
Dec 16 China's announcement of an air defense
identification zone (AIDZ) that covers substantial portions of
the East China Sea has unleashed a storm of concern among
China's neighbors - as well as in the United States.
For China's action reflects the deeper challenge now posed
by its growing military capability and international activism.
Vice President Joe Biden was on solid ground when he objected
strenuously to this new air defense zone during his recent trip
to the region.
Washington and Beijing each insists it wants to build a "new
kind of major power relationship." If they are to succeed,
however, and enhance peace and stability across the region, they
must develop new strategies to manage their growing tensions.
China defended its new defense zone by asserting that its
actions are consistent with international law. Beijing's
arguments are unconvincing, however, because they don't address
the reasons why this particular air defense zone is so
In contrast with the usual defense zone - which helps build
stability by reducing the chances of accidents based on mistaken
identity - the unilateral and assertive nature of the new
Chinese effort increases the risk of conflict.
Consider the underlying justification for an air defense
zone and why it is an accepted practice. Under international
law, a country's sovereignty in airspace derives from its
sovereignty over the territorial rights underneath. All airspace
outside these boundaries is part of the global commons.
But this presents a dilemma. If countries cannot act against
a potential threat from the air until it approaches within 12
miles of shore, the time to act is short. If there is ambiguity
about an incoming aircraft's intentions, there will be pressure
to shoot first and ask questions later.
When tensions are high - particularly in this age of
terrorism from the sky - the pressure to act increases. Even
when the nature of the threat is unknown.
Enter the ADIZ. By pushing the boundary to identify aircraft
headed for territorial space, there is more time to resolve
ambiguities and avoid engagement of benign aircraft. A nation
would have stronger justification for taking action against an
unknown aircraft entering sovereign airspace if that aircraft
failed to identify itself.
For an aircraft crossing the air defense zone, but not
approaching territorial airspace, the failure to identify would
be inconsequential since there would be no basis for taking
action against it. So, by expanding the decision-making time and
reducing the risk of mistake, ADIZs can increase stability
consistent with a nation's legitimate right of self-defense.
So shouldn't we welcome China's decision? No. Because China
has not demonstrated that its goal is benign.
There are simple steps that Beijing could have taken to
reassure its neighbors and the international community. First,
China could have consulted with others before imposing the ADIZ
and explained its rationale.
Second, China could have made clear how it intends to
implement the zone. Beijing could have explained, for example,
that the zone's geographic scope was focused on approaches to
the mainland, that China was not asserting sovereignty in ADIZ,
that it was not claiming the right to engage non-compliant
aircraft in international airspace, and that any patrols in the
ADIZ would be unarmed to monitor (and if necessary, cue
territorial air defense assets) if an unidentified aircraft
entered China's airspace.
By failing to provide reassurance, China has given other
nations justification to draw less benign conclusions. They
could view this as the latest chapter in Beijing's attempt to
unilaterally alter the status quo in connection with its local
territorial disputes. In doing so, China has prompted its
neighbors to respond in ways that heighten the risk of conflict,
such as instructing civilian aircraft not to comply.
Because China offered no reassurance, the United States
acted appropriately in demonstrating a resolve not to acquiesce
in this destabilizing action. Washington must, however, provide
its own reassurance. It should communicate in advance U.S.
intent to exercise its rights for legitimate military transits -
in ways that cannot be construed as a threat to China.
Washington, for example, could communicate the general
nature of air transit, though not necessarily the specific
flight plan. Such transparency would vindicate U.S. rights,
while reducing the risk of accidents or destabilizing
action-reaction cycles. It would be better to use fighters or
long-range patrol aircraft to assert this principle, rather than
long-range bombers like the B-52 - which could be viewed as an
implicit threat to China's territorial rights.
Even as we push back against Beijing's decision, Washington
should consider other measures to provide appropriate
reassurance about each side's intentions.
The United States and China could, for example, adopt an
Open Skies regimen, modeled on the U.S.-Russian experience,
flying unarmed and pre-approved reconnaissance sorties as a way
of building trust.
Without such proactive thinking about how to relieve growing
tensions from China's ascendance in international power and
stature, we are likely to confront many more crises like this -
or worse - in the years and decades ahead.
(James Steinberg and Michael E. O'Hanlon)