Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.12.03

No New Airspace for China

JBPress on November 29, 2013

Last weekend China surprised the international community again, this time by establishing an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone or "ADIZ," which also covers Japan's airspace over the Senkaku Islands. This is another diplomatic fiasco for China whose top political leadership may not have been fully warned in advance of the potential damage to their country's reputation.

When the Chinese Defense Ministry announced the establishment of the ADIZ over the East China Sea, ordinary Japanese citizens did not even know what ADIZ means. Most likely, neither did many in the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force. If they had known what it really is, they would not have announced the defense identification zone in the first place.

It is the international understanding that a country's ADIZ is by no means its territorial airspace and is established only for the purpose of identifying aircraft which might violate its airspace within as little as a few minutes. An ADIZ is basically part of the air zones over international waters or the "open sea," where the long-established freedom of navigation and aviation prevails.

China, however, implies that it would take military measures if and when an aircraft, commercial or otherwise, does not comply with the rules and conditions imposed by the Chinese PLA, as if the zone were her semi-territorial airspace. Many nations, disagreeing with China's new interpretation of ADIZ, were taken by surprise and wondered about the real purposes or intentions of the PLA.

The international response was both prompt and harsh. For example, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that the United States is "deeply concerned," considers "this development as a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region," and that "this unilateral action increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations."

He further stated that "This announcement by the People's Republic of China will not in any way change how the United States conducts military operations in the region." In addition, Tokyo announced that it would not comply with the PLA imposed rules and conditions. Other like-minded nations such as Australia made similar statements.

Many in Japan and elsewhere wondered why China started this kind of clumsy provocation now in the East China Sea. Some in Tokyo believe that this should not be construed as just a challenge against Japan's administrative control over the Senkakus, but as another step to enhance the PLA's control over the water and air beyond 12 miles off China's eastern coast.

Tokyo's strategic planners cannot grasp the motivation of China, simply because their move to establish the ADIZ is more suicidal than successful. If China aimed at isolating Japan and separating her from the United States, the result was the opposite. Japanese officials in charge of bilateral alliance relations with the United States could not thank Beijing more.

As a clear message to Beijing, two U.S. bombers challenged China by flying over the Senkakus on November 25. Washington did not inform China of the flight in advance. The two B-52s from Anderson Air Force Base in Guam reportedly were not armed or accompanied by any escort planes. The PLA Air Force detected and monitored the flight but did not intercept it.

Why did China make such a diplomatic mistake in the first place? We can only guess, because no background information had been provided by Beijing. The most likely possibility is that there has been not much coordination among the relevant Chinese authorities, and between the PLA and the Foreign Ministry in particular.

It is very likely that the diplomatic ramifications of a decision to approve the establishment of this East China Sea ADIZ were not considered at the top of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It may have just happened because a specific bureaucratic entity, this time the PLA Air Force, fulfilled its national duty in its respective capacity or authority.

If this is the case, the issue is much more serious. If the CCP's central leadership made a collective decision and ordered the PLA to do so, it can be reconsidered by the highest authority of the CCP. If not, it may not be rescinded until the worst case military scenario takes place.

In response to the robust statements and actions of the U.S. Beijing called on Washington to continue to not take sides on sovereignty disputes and asked it to "stop making irresponsible comments." On the contrary, the Chinese side is the irresponsible party. Beijing should know that it is an irresponsible PLA Air Force move that is damaging the honor and prestige of the very nation they are supposed to defend.