27 November 2013

What’s Wrong With China’s Air Defence Identification Zone (And What’s Not)

This article merits extremely careful reading. Recent Chinese writings emphasize opposition to double standards and suggest that Beijing is being opposed just because it announced an ADIZ per se. In a recent commentary, for instance, Xinhua writer Wu Liming claims: “China’s announcement to establish an Air Defense Identification Zone in East China Sea has drawn criticism from the United States and Japan, yet their blame is wrong. Their logic is simple: they can do it while China can not, which could be described with a Chinese saying, ‘the magistrates are free to burn down houses while the common people are forbidden even to light lamps.’” In fact, however, there is considerable concern among foreign observers about how China has (and how it has not) gone about the announcement and explanation of its ADIZ. Rory Metcalf cuts right to the heart of this critical distinction. 

Rory Metcalf, What’s Wrong With China’s Air Defence Identification Zone (And What’s Not),” The Lowy Interpreter, 27 November 2013.

… An ADIZ is not a provocative or negative step in itself; indeed, it can be in the interests of stability and security of the nation enforcing it. Many countries have such zones already, including Japan, South Korea and the US, which started the whole trend decades ago.

If China’s new zone did not include disputed maritime territory, if its requirements for compliance applied only to aircraft heading into Chinese airspace, and if neighbours like Japan and South Korea had been consulted ahead of the announcement, then there would be little or nothing for others to object to. Indeed, it could have been part of a wider strategy of cooperation to reduce maritime security risks in North Asia.

Instead, there are several things wrong with China’s declared position:

  • It is a unilateral step, announced suddenly and apparently without consultation with two countries whose civilian and military aircraft will be most affected, the US and Japan.
  • It includes a contested maritime area, notably the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and thus can be seen as a deliberate effort to change the status quo, even a provocation.
  • Its ‘rules’ demanding that aircraft identify themselves and obey Chinese direction on flight paths seem to apply to all aircraft in the zone and not only aircraft en route to China. This conflicts with the basic early warning and air-traffic control purposes of an ADIZ, and with longstanding Pentagon regulations advising US military aircraft to comply with a foreign ADIZ only when they flying on a course into that country’s airspace, not when they are simply in transit or on patrol.
  • It looks like a pretext for one of two undesirable security outcomes. If foreign aircraft now regularly obey the new Chinese rules, we will see precedents set for the unilateral expansion of Chinese authority over contested maritime territory. Alternately, if foreign aircraft contest or ignore the Chinese zone and a dangerous or deadly incident occurs (such as a collision or a forceful encounter), then China will have prepared the way to absolve itself of legal or moral blame, making it easier to use the incident as a justification to escalate the crisis if China so chooses. …

For other recent analysis, see Andrew S. Erickson, “Watch This Space: China’s New Air Defense Zone,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 25 November 2013.

Click here for details of PLA Air Force’s first patrol in ECS ADIZ and Chinese experts’ discussion of zone’s significance.

Extensive, frequently-updated Chinese-language articles and graphics concerning the ECS ADIZ that Beijing has announced are available here.

Statements by Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone may be accessed here.

Click here for PRC Defense Spokesman’s responses to questions on Beijing’s announcement of an East China Sea ADIZ.

Official Chinese announcements and top American analysis of China and ADIZ issues is available here.

  • erictan

    So basically China has drawn a (new) line, and it’s waiting to see who crosses it. The Japanese airlines JAL and ANA have stated that they will not comply with China’s requirements and Japan as a whole doesn’t recognize China’s extended ADIZ. I’m hoping Taiwan will have a similar response but you never know with President Ma’s closer-ties-with-China policies. I think it’s a big deal, and I’m glad the reaction of those affected has been swift. The two B-52s flying into the new ADIZ is the USA’s way of thumbing its nose at this new development, despite the DOD’s assurances that the flight had been planned for months.
    Isn’t the Chinese aircraft carrier now scheduled to sail through this area on its way to the South China Sea? Let’s see what happens then…

  • LookBothPerspectives

    This article is hypocritical in itself. Japan’s ADIZ consists the contested Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and they never notified China about their unilateral Island grab back in 2011. The US voiced no objection and allowed them to take it. Japan’s ADIZ also overlaps terroritory claimed by South Korea. Have you even seen Japan’s ADIZ on a map? Just take a look at Japan’s ADIZ and tell me that this doesn’t smell of hypocrisy and double standards. China has valid points on this issue in this regards.

  • 12887114

    Is the reason why Japan’s ADIZ is ok, despite the fact that it also incorporates the disputed islands is that Japan doesn’t officially recognize that these islands are disputed? or what?