China's ADIZ undermines regional stability
By Bonnie S Glaser
China established an "East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ)" effective as of 10 am on November 23. China's Ministry of National Defense also announced Aircraft Identification Rules for the ADIZ, which include a warning that "defensive emergency measures" would be adopted to respond to aircraft that refuse to follow the instructions.
The zone overlaps the existing ADIZ of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. China's ADIZ covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands claimed by China, Japan and Taiwan. One day following the announcement, China conducted two aerial patrols over the area; its aircraft were intercepted by Japan Air Self Defense Force (ASDF) fighter jets.
All nations have the right to establish reasonable conditions of entry into their territory. An ADIZ is a declaration of a perimeter
within which unidentified aircraft can be intercepted and prevented from illegally proceeding to enter national airspace. It serves essentially as a national defense boundary for aerial incursions. There are no international rules or laws that determine the size of an ADIZ. Over 20 nations have an ADIZ, including the United States, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Taiwan in the West Pacific. ADIZs typically are much more extensive then a country's territorial airspace.
Why did China establish an ADIZ? China's PLA spokesman claimed that its action is "a necessary measure taken by China in exercising its self-defense right," and that "it is not directed against any specific country or target." However, the decision to declare an East China Sea ADIZ is likely aimed at strengthening Beijing's claim over the disputed islands in the East China Sea. This move follows on China's September 2012 submission to the United Nations of baselines to demarcate a territorial sea around the disputed islands.
China may also be responding to recent Japanese warnings that it reserves the right to shoot down unmanned drones that pose a threat to Japanese airspace. By creating an ADIZ that includes the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Beijing may believe it has established a basis for challenging and, if necessary, taking action against Japanese aircraft operating in this zone. The ADIZ may also signal a Chinese intention to increase flights in the territorial airspace around the disputed islands as a demonstration of its sovereignty and jurisdictional claim. China has only flown an aircraft in the territorial airspace around the island once, in February 2013, when a civilian maritime surveillance Y-12 aircraft entered the airspace.
Beijing may also seek to collect and publish data on the number of times that Chinese jets scramble to intercept Japanese fighters that enter into its ADIZ. Japan already publishes data on "intrusions" by Chinese and Russian aircraft; China may see benefits in demonstrating to its domestic audience that the party and military are doing their utmost to defend Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity.
China's action exacerbates tensions in ongoing disputes and creating friction in the region where none or little existed. It further increases tension in the territorial row between China and Japan at a time when that bilateral relationship is already severely strained. Moreover, it heightens the risk of an accident. There is a very large overlap between China's ADIZ and Japan's ADIZ. When aircraft from either country fly in this overlapping area, the other side is likely to scramble fighters and intercept the intruder. If intercepts are not conducted safely and in accordance with international norms, a collision is possible. Recall that in 2001 a Chinese fighter jet that was conducting aggressive intercepts collided with a US surveillance plane, which resulted in the Chinese pilot's death, the forced landing of the US EP-3 on Hainan island where its 24-member crew was held for 11 days, and a crisis in US-China relations.
China's ADIZ also encompasses portions of Ieo Island and Jeju Island, which are part of South Korea, and overlaps with the Korean ADIZ in a wide swath that is 20 kilometers wide and 115 km long. The South Korean government expressed its regret about the Chinese government's decision. The newly announced ADIZ also overlaps with Taiwan's ADIZ, prompting the government in Taipei to issue a statement that included a pledge that Taiwan's armed forces would ensure the safety of the country's airspace, and urged all parties to "avoid actions that could escalate confrontation in the region."
Moreover, China's Aircraft Identification Rules make no distinction between aircraft flying parallel with China's coastline through the ADIZ and those flying toward China's territorial airspace. Secretary of State Kerry highlighted this issue in his statement, saying that the US "does not apply its ADIZ procedures to foreign aircraft not intending to enter US national airspace," implying that the US would not recognize China's claimed right to take action against aircraft that are not intending to enter its national airspace. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel stated that the US would not change the way it conducts military operations in the region.
Some Chinese may believe that aggressive intercepts against a Japanese aircraft in disputed air space near the Senkakus would not provoke a US response since Washington is neutral on the issue of sovereignty over the islands. Secretary Hagel's statement reaffirming that Article V of the US-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the disputed islands is important in this regard and should prevent Chinese miscalculation.
At one fell swoop, Beijing's ADIZ decision has injected new problems into its ties with South Korea, Taiwan and the US, further soured relations with Japan, and frightened smaller nations in Southeast Asia. It appears that Xi Jinping, who by all accounts has emerged stronger from the recently held Chinese Communist Party Third Plenum, is willing to fan the flames of nationalism so he can ensure the party's popularity as he tackles economic reform at home.
Bonnie S Glaser is a Senior Adviser for Asia in the Freeman Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.