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China's aggressive air zone rattles a suspicious region (+video)

Regional ties are at a new low since China's unilateral announcement, but China may be willing to endure short-term displeasure for long-term gains.

By Staff Writer / December 5, 2013

Two Chinese J-10 fighter jets crossed paths at an air show in Zhuhai, China, in November. China is using air power to extend its influence over the East China Sea.

Bobby Yip/Reuters

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BEIJING

How do you say "backfire" in Chinese?

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The White House said on Thursday that the air defense zone declared by China over parts of the East China Sea is provocative and not consistent with the behavior of a major power, and again urged Beijing not to implement it. White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters, "We, the United States, do not recognize and we do not accept it, and will not change the way the United States conducts military operations in the region."

ADIZ.

That is the controversial "air defense identification zone" that China declared in international airspace over the East China Sea Nov. 23, demanding that all foreign aircraft flying through it should obey Chinese air-traffic controllers' instructions.

Since then, the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have all ignored Beijing's wishes, publicly announcing flights into the zone by military pilots who did not report their presence to the Chinese authorities. And no Chinese fighters challenged them.

China's sudden move, which it is unable, or unwilling, to enforce, "has totally backfired," says Taylor Fravel, an expert in Chinese security issues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

But the egg on China's face may not stick. Some analysts suggest that Chinese strategists are following tactics familiar from the ancient board game Go. "They are playing a long game, staking out a position to be consolidated later," says David Arase, who teaches international politics at the Johns Hopkins Center in Nanjing, China. "He who laughs last laughs best."

In the meantime, the move "has raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation," US Vice President Joe Biden warned on a tour of East Asia in early December. China's new ADIZ (pronounced AY-dizz) has ratcheted up Beijing's potentially violent dispute with Japan over ownership of a group of islands that lie in the zone. It also overlaps with existing Japanese, South Korean, and Taiwanese ADIZs.

Clearly taken aback by the angry international reaction to its announcement, the Chinese Defense Ministry issued a long statement Dec. 3 explaining what its ADIZ is not. Beijing is not claiming territorial airspace, nor has it declared a no-fly zone, spokesman Geng Yansheng insisted.

China's ADIZ 'is different'

Nonetheless, "China's ADIZ is different" from the 20 or so other such zones that have sprung up around the world over the past 60 years, says Peter Dutton, director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I., who has written extensively on the ADIZ phenomenon. "It is quite a provocative act."

In the normal course of events, an ADIZ is a harmless tool to help air-defense controllers distinguish potential threats from normal traffic near their territorial airspace. It serves as a buffer zone over the ocean in which controllers are particularly alert to any aircraft. A number of countries have established such zones.

The US was the first country to declare an ADIZ, in 1950, and Washington laid down an ADIZ for South Korea in 1951 and later another for Japan (Tokyo took over responsibility for it in 1969).

This is the first time China has declared such a zone, and it insists it is not doing anything that other states have not done. By complaining about it, says Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang, paraphrasing an old Chinese poem, the US and Japan "are allowing themselves to set fires while forbidding others to light a lamp."

Beijing has also repeatedly insisted that "the zone does not aim at any specific country or target," as the Defense Ministry spokesman said Dec. 3. But hardly anyone buys that, not even researchers at the Chinese military-affiliated Shanghai National Defense Strategy Research Institute, such as Ni Lexiong.

"This move implies China's territorial claim to the [disputed] Diaoyu islands and supports that claim," he says bluntly. "China announced its ADIZ as a way to put pressure on the relevant countries. It can be seen as a strategic test."

Bitter dispute at the heart of the uproar  

At the heart of the uproar is China's increasingly bitter territorial dispute with Japan over ownership of a handful of islands in the East China Sea (known in China as the Diaoyu, and in Japan as the Senkaku) that have been under Japanese control for more than 100 years. Rich reserves of oil and gas are thought to lie under the waters surrounding the islands, making them a potentially rich prize. Taiwan also claims them.

That is a key reason why nobody is recognizing China's ADIZ.

"I know of no other ADIZ that has been proclaimed by a coastal state covering the sovereign territory of another state," says Professor Dutton. "China has overplayed its hand."

US Secretary of State John Kerry has also objected, saying that China's ADIZ rules are unusual in that they demand all aircraft to identify themselves upon entering the zone, even if they do not intend to proceed into Chinese territorial airspace. In practice, Dutton says, commercial airplanes all over the world identify themselves to air-traffic controllers in the vicinity of their flight paths as a matter of course by filing flight plans with the International Civil Aviation Organization. The US State Department says that the US government "generally expects" US international carriers "to operate consistent with Notices to Airmen issued by foreign countries" including China, for the sake of passenger safety.

Almost all international airlines are thought to also be following standard practice and reporting their presence in China's new ADIZ. Nobody wants a repeat of the 1983 KAL 007 disaster, when Soviet air controllers apparently mistook a Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 for a US spy plane and ordered a fighter pilot to shoot it down, killing all 269 people aboard.

Military planes, though, are a different matter. Since China's ADIZ is in international airspace where Beijing has no jurisdictional authority, "foreign military aircraft are immune from its requirements," Dutton says. By demanding that they identify themselves and follow any instructions they are given, "China is overstepping the boundary of what is internationally lawful" under the customary law that governs ADIZs, he adds.

Unique interpretation of international law

China's idiosyncratic reading of international law adds a layer of international objections to its ADIZ. Beijing has long argued – against generally accepted interpretations – that international law gives coastal states legally protected security interests beyond their territorial waters, usually defined as within 12 miles of the shoreline.

If Beijing were to extend its authority beyond 12 miles based on that viewpoint, "that would be a significant change in the balance of interests and rights" in international airspace and waters, Dutton argues. "We will have to wait and see how China enforces its view."

Enforcing the ADIZ "will be a headache and a challenge for China's leaders," Professor Ni says. The Chinese Air Force cannot send up planes to check on the identity of all the foreign military aircraft that are deliberately breaching the zone unannounced.

But the risks of an accident are not small. China and Japan are both scrambling their fighter jets almost daily to identify each other's planes in their respective and overlapping ADIZs, sending "unidentified jets flying in opposite directions," in Professor Fravel's words.

While neither government is likely to want to provoke a conflict, they are not in full control of the situation. No one has forgotten the crisis that erupted in 2001 between China and the US when a Chinese fighter pilot collided with a US EP-3 spy plane. The Chinese pilot crashed and died, and the EP-3, with its 24-person crew, was forced to land on the Chinese island of Hainan, leading to a tense 11-day standoff before the US Navy airmen were released.

There are no indications that US surveillance planes have stopped their routine flights up and down China's coast since Beijing declared its ADIZ, or that they have announced their presence to Chinese air controllers.

"I am sure that whatever the US was doing before it is still doing, and maybe a little bit more," Fravel says.

Crisis management tools

Mr. Biden, visiting Tokyo, urged both China and Japan to establish "crisis management mechanisms and effective channels of communication … to reduce the risk of escalation." Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Mr. Geng says Beijing is "willing to conduct active communication and consultation with relevant parties to jointly safeguard flight safety."

Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, however, does not appear to be in the mood for talks. "Under the Chinese air defense identification zone, the Senkaku Islands become Chinese territory," he said Nov. 29. "Under this assumption we cannot accept any negotiation request from the Chinese side over how the ADIZ should be operated."

The US and Japan have both called on China to rescind its declaration, a proposal at which Chinese officials have scoffed, insisting, as Geng put it, that its ADIZ is "a zone of safety not risks, a zone of cooperation not competition."

Not everyone is convinced.

"This looks like another step towards asserting Chinese control over all the areas it unilaterally declared belonged to it in 1992," when the Chinese parliament passed a law claiming the Diaoyu Islands and island groups in the South China Sea such as the Spratlys, the Paracels, and the Scarborough Shoal, also claimed by a number of Southeast Asian states, says June Teufel Dreyer, a China expert at the University of Miami.

"They are meeting hostile rhetoric and defiance of the zone, so they will let tempers cool and not enforce it" for the time being, she predicts. "But they'll be back."

At the least, China's move "sets up a situation where China is controlling the escalation of this confrontation," adds Professor Arase. "They are driving the conflict between China and Japan towards riskier and riskier outcomes."

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