Air Zone Tensions Continue Over the East China Sea

7 MINS READDec 6, 2013 | 22:05 GMT
Tensions Remain High Above the East China Sea
Lt. Gen. Liu Shou-Jen of the Taiwanese Air Force introduces a map of the contested air space above the East China Sea during a press conference in Taipei on Dec. 2.
(Mandy Cheng/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden returned from South Korea on Dec. 7, having also visited Japan and China during a week of diplomatic upkeep. Biden's trip was planned before China's Nov. 23 declaration of an air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, in the East China Sea, but the controversy over Beijing's move, while not the only topic discussed, dominated the vice president's trip.

In Japan, Biden and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attempted to show a unified position over China's new zone, which overlaps with Japan's own air zone and, in particular, the Japanese-controlled Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, over which China claims sovereignty. The two leaders pledged to reject unilateral attempts by China to change the status quo in the region and agreed to oppose any threats to civilian aviation. In China, Biden discussed the new air zone with President Xi Jinping, who reiterated Beijing's position, though the issue did not prevent discussion about other concerns such as the direction of China's economic reforms. Finally, in South Korea, Biden and President Park Geun-hye agreed to hold close consultations over the new identification area, which also overlaps the Korean air zone.

Despite attempts to show a firm stance with Japan, Biden's trip suggests that the U.S. position on China's new ADIZ will not be wholly oppositional, contrary to reports that Washington would demand that Beijing retract it. The United States seems prepared to continue striking a balance between officially refusing to recognize the zone and voicing concerns over China's handling of it, while unofficially urging commercial carriers to comply with Chinese rules for the sake of the airlines' own safety.

This balancing act, which has been replicated by Taiwan, has created some dissonance in Japan's government, which ordered Japanese commercial airlines not to comply with Chinese rules. Meanwhile, U.S. military aircraft — along with Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese aircraft — have refused to comply, routinely flying in and through the area without sending warning or identification, much as they would before. 

Thus, it seems that the U.S. position will focus more heavily on how aggressively the Chinese attempt to enforce the zone, rather than on China's mere right to declare it. So far, Beijing has not sought to enforce the ADIZ aggressively, partly because it lacks the comprehensive capabilities to do so. Biden's emphasis on the need for China and Japan to create a stable framework for crisis management, while generally applicable, suggests that the United States expects China's air zone to be an uncomfortable fixture in the relationship going forward. 

South Korea and Taiwan Respond

China's new zone has spurred a number of other regional reactions. The South Koreans now seem likely to expand the Korean Air Defense Identification Zone, or KADIZ, which was originally designed by the United States in the 1950s. Seoul has long desired to enlarge the zone. The proposed expansion would aim to capture Ieodo Reef (known as Suyan Rock in Chinese and originally named Socotra Rock by the British), a small partially submerged rock in South Korea's exclusive economic zone in the East China Sea. Though not in Korean territorial waters, South Korea operates an oceanic research station and helipad on the rock, which has been the subject of prior disputes with China over exclusive economic zones and currently falls under Japan's ADIZ. Seoul will also aim to bring into its air zone other islands such as Marado and Hongdo, which also fall under the Japanese ADIZ. 

Tensions Remain High Above the East China Sea

East Asia's Overlapping Air Defense Identification Zones

Some Korean media outlets reported that Biden gave Washington's blessing to the planned KADIZ expansion, though this has yet to be confirmed. Korean critics of the expansion note that if Seoul adjusts the U.S.-drawn lines, then Japan is likely to respond by redrawing its lines in relation to South Korea. The United States is obviously hoping to minimize disputes between its allies. But Seoul will be eager to respond to China's actions by asserting its air control rights over its southernmost holdings, also anticipating any Chinese air zone declarations in the Yellow Sea. Moreover, it may wish to take the opportunity to make what it would view to be a long-overdue correction with regard to Japan's ADIZ. Therefore, if South Korea proceeds with expanding KADIZ, the situation will become more contentious for China, Japan and the United States. 

Meanwhile, Taiwan has called attention to its long-standing disputes with Japan over the encroachment of its ADIZ into Taiwan's own flight information region. Tokyo exacerbated these disputes in 2010 when it expanded its zone to cover the entirety of Yonaguni, the nearest Japanese island to Taiwan. The Taiwanese Civil Aeronautics Authority briefed the country's legislative committee on foreign affairs and defense and focused on Japan's aggressive patrolling of its ADIZ in the past (though not in 2013 so far), frequently intercepting civilian aircraft on their way to Shanghai or northeastern China. The recommendation was that Taiwan should complain if Japan, at any future point, resumes interceptions of Taiwanese civilian aircraft.

At the same time, Taiwan's response to China has been critical but relatively restrained. Taiwanese authorities have claimed three things. First, China is not enforcing the ADIZ strictly against repeated Taiwanese military sorties. Second, China's own air activity in the new zone has not changed significantly. Third, Taiwan intends to refrain from holding military drills in the new zone to avoid provoking China.

In essence, the Taiwanese have drawn a line similar to that drawn by the United States, offering separate guidance for military aircraft and commercial carriers. Taipei has also flagged the possibility that air zone frictions with Japan could re-emerge at any time. Taipei hopes to assert its autonomy both relative to the mainland (by flying its military aircraft through the zone without identification) and to the Japanese (by insisting on its own air zone and criticizing Tokyo for overly aggressive enforcement). 

Wider Effects

Elsewhere in the region, China's declaration on the East China Sea has had less direct effects. A number of Southeast Asian airlines have complied with the new zone. However, the region is preparing for Beijing to make similar moves in the South China Sea, especially after China's ambassador to the Philippines asserted China's right to set up an ADIZ in the region. Indeed, the specific designation of "East China Sea" for the newly established ADIZ implies that other zones might be forthcoming. Southeast Asian states are already divided over how to respond to China's territorial assertions, and similar divisions are likely to emerge if Beijing attempts to introduce a South China Sea zone.

In light of these developments, Japan faces difficulties in its response to China. Unlike the United States and some other nations, Japan has forbidden its civilian airlines from reporting to the Chinese. Japan will eventually have to decide whether to acquiesce and allow its airlines to follow China's new rules or to maintain a firm position that could eventually expose its airlines to greater risks of, say, more-frequent interceptions by Chinese fighter jets.

Tensions Remain High Above the East China Sea

Japan Air Self-Defense Force Scrambles

Tokyo fears that whatever it does, China will take further steps to build its presence in the disputed territories and whittle away the status quo of Japanese control. For that reason, Japan is also likely to continue to monitor its ADIZ energetically. The rising trend of Japanese Air Self-Defense Force jets scrambling to intercept aircraft breaching its ADIZ looks set to continue. This trend has been mirrored by China, with the rising prominence of Japanese interceptions of Chinese aircraft overtaking those of Russian aircraft. 

In the meantime, Tokyo is attempting to organize regional opposition to China's latest move. Japan is in the process of referring the case to the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization, and it may attempt to use the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit it is hosting in December to warn China against regulating its ADIZ in a way that raises a regional security threat. Tokyo will make other similar efforts, but due to divisions over China within the Southeast Asian bloc, it will face difficulties in trying to forge a unified and forceful Asian message. The combination of such disunity, Taiwanese disagreements and South Korean adjustments to its ADIZ may trouble Japan's efforts to keep the regional focus on potential threats from China. 

A New Dimension

China's move has added a new dimension to regional tensions over territorial and international space that seems likely to remain in place. The general risk of an incident, air collision or crash has significantly increased due to the disagreement over the legitimacy of China's zone, uncertainty over its enforcement, and the underlying fears over future administrative control and sovereignty. However, the propensity for most commercial airlines to adhere to China's rules, coupled with Beijing's current lack of stringent enforcement, suggests that these tensions are an extension of existing territorial anxieties and will be contained by the various states' diplomatic efforts. That said, any diplomacy would be greatly strained in the event of a violent incident. 

In the long run, if China intensifies its enforcement and improves its ability to combine its various military capabilities to operate continuously and competently across the full extent of the ADIZ, the potential for confrontation becomes more serious. The United States, meanwhile, will face a steep challenge in attempting to preserve coordination among its allies, divided as they are among their own territorial and extra-territorial zoning disputes.

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