Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.12.26

China's Declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea and Soft Power Diplomacy

China's declaration of the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea has been the target of international criticism. Japan's six major newspapers have differing political views but, on this matter, they did not - their reports have been unanimously critical of China. The Japanese government's response, that China retract the declaration, has the strong support of the Japanese people.

Why did China resort to such a move? It is, of course, because China is attempting to advance its position that the Senkaku Islands belong to China, but that alone would not be enough to explain in full the underlying motivation. China surely is aware that it is not at liberty to take just any measure that may be available to it in order to achieve its goals and, moreover, that the step it took could both invite a backlash and worsen its stature internationally. So, the question is why China assumed the risk of taking such a step.

Just as China was making this move, it took another action that reflected the extent to which it is sensitive to world opinion. That was its assistance to the Philippines, which had suffered greatly from the typhoon. At first, the Chinese government and the Chinese Red Cross each announced an aid offer of $100,000, respectively; however, the international media criticized China for the small amount of aid being offered by what is the world's second largest economy. By contrast, Japan offered $30 million by November 15, and the United States offered emergency aid of $20 million. Frequently, countries extend public offers of assistance more than once and some of these are through international organizations, all of which makes it more difficult to derive precise figures for purposes of making comparisons. There is, however, no doubt that the international media viewed China's aid offer as just too small. In response to this international view, the Chinese government extended an additional aid offer of $1.5 million. It is doubtful whether this offer was helpful in restoring China's reputation, but it remains the case that China, prompted by international opinion, did alter its position.

That having been said, why was China heedless to the dangers of wreaking damage to its image by unilaterally declaring the ADIZ? One explanation could be that criticisms regarding its aid to the Philippines were in the economic arena, where it is relatively easy for China to change its policy. In contrast, the ADIZ arises out of national sovereignty concerns and their relationship to national defense. In exercising its sovereignty, China would not have the same degree of flexibility in modifying its policies to preserve its image. This explanation, however, cannot be correct. Although national sovereignty is often used as a reason for legitimizing action, China actually does pay attention to how it is perceived in the area of national defense. For example, although other nations often see China's stance that it will not engage in the first use of nuclear weapons as propaganda, China obviously is trying to foster the impression that it is a peace-loving nation.

Another explanation is that the People's Liberation Army (PLA), believing that China's Foreign Ministry has been too weak with regard to the issue of the Senkaku Islands, advocated strongly for adopting the measure. That advocacy overrode the views of the Foreign Ministry and ultimately drove the decision of the Chinese government. DuoWei News, which is based outside China and has connections with both China and Taiwan, has offered just such an interpretation.

This interpretation is belied by several facts. For one, when the PLA flew a drone over a body of coastal water near the Senkaku Islands, it was reported in China that the Japanese government had declared that if a drone were to invade Japan's territory, Japan would shoot it down and that purported declaration tremendously irritated the PLA. This, however, was misreporting. In point of fact, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihige Suga remarked at a press conference that "Japan will enforce increased security to protect our land, sea, and airspace around the Senkaku Islands." This only stated what was obvious, but it was not reported accurately in China. Such erroneous reporting is a problem for China, and one for which Japan is not responsible, but it is nonetheless likely that the PLA was offended.

Another possibility is that the PLA had not welcomed the efforts of the Chinese government to try to improve China's relations with Japan. It was reported that, during the important October 24-25 conference on China's diplomacy with its neighboring countries, Chairman Xi Jinping had pointed out the need to improve economic relations with Japan. China has not been made this public, but Jiji Press reported on November 15 that, after checking with those who had attended the conference, it was able to ascertain that this comment had, indeed, been made. It so happened that the number of Chinese vessels invading the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands has decreased since then and there is, therefore, a high probability that Chairman Xi Jinping's remarks were reported accurately. It is also known that the Chinese government had recently relaxed the limitation on its high officials having contacts with their counterparts in Japan, which, previously, had been quite restricted.

The declaration of the ADIZ in the East China Sea makes one ponder the relationship between Chairman Xi Jinping and the PLA. It is also notable from the perspective of the exercise of soft power, which concerns the extent to which a country's image affects its diplomacy.

The declaration of the ADIZ created the impression that China pays no heed to its image. At this point, however, it would be premature to reach that conclusion as the ADIZ issue is far from resolved. Although it is highly unlikely that China would be willing to change its policy, and thereby lose face, there is a recent talk of focusing on Japan as a target. It appears that China does not want the United States to think ill of China.