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China’s ADIZ risks conflict with Japan

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In Brief

China’s newly declared air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and overlaps with Japan’s own ADIZ. Its announcement has both political and military implications, particularly for China’s relations with Japan.


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Politically, even though ADIZs do not carry any legal weight in terms of sovereignty, states do not normally declare an ADIZ over someone else’s territory unless they share a land border. One exception is Taiwan’s ADIZ over Yonaguni Island in Okinawa Prefecture, just over 100km from Taiwan.

Militarily, the ADIZ could potentially be utilised by China to claim for its aircraft right of passage over the Senkaku Islands and provides a pretext for China to take so-called ‘defensive emergency measures’ against intruding aircraft from other states. The Chinese government has declared that if foreign aircraft do not follow instructions given by the Chinese Ministry of National Defence, they can take defensive military measures against them, including ‘identification, surveillance, control and disposal, taking into account specific circumstances’.

Thus the new Chinese ADIZ expands the ‘zone of confrontation’ between China and Japan from the territorial seas around the Senkaku Islands to the skies. A key test of Chinese intentions as well as the increased potential risk of clashes is whether China uses the ADIZ to assert the right to patrol the area over the islands and to challenge Japanese aircraft in that territorial airspace such as through scrambling or interception. Such a scenario could act as a trigger for an aerial confrontation and possibly even direct conflict between China and Japan.

China’s ADIZ is clearly directed at Japan despite assurances that it ‘did not target any specific nation‘. As an anti-Japanese measure, however, it represents a very blunt and inefficient instrument because of the collateral damage to other relationships in the region including Taiwan, South Korea, the United States and Australia.

China’s ADIZ declaration also sets two troubling double standards. First, Chinese military aircraft have never complied with Japan’s ADIZ in the East China Sea, calling it ‘illegal’. According to Japanese sources, earlier this year, a government maritime surveillance aircraft entered Japanese territorial airspace over the Senkakus, which was later followed by a drone (of unspecified origin).

Second, China requires all foreign aircraft who wish to enter the ADIZ to submit their flight plans, maintain radio contact, operate their transponder, clearly indicate their nationality and affiliation, and follow instructions given by the Chinese Air Force whether their ultimate intention is to enter Chinese territorial airspace or not. This contrasts with Japan’s and the US’s ADIZ rules. It is equivalent to treating the airspace within China’s ADIZ — as much as 600 km away from the Chinese coast — as its territorial airspace. China tends to manage their EEZ in the same way — as if it were its territorial waters .

China’s new ADIZ raises the prospect of two possible contingencies in the East China Sea both of which would represent a significant escalation of the Senkaku Islands crisis: a serious political miscalculation by China in an attempt to assert sovereign control over the islands; and an incident triggering a military escalation of the Senkaku crisis. A scenario where Japanese and Chinese planes clash in that airspace has suddenly become more of a possibility, thus opening up a path to war. Enforcing China’s new ADIZ will be in the hands of Chinese airmen, raising the possibility of aggressive intercepts. An editorial in the CCP mouthpiece, the Global Times, warned that Japan ‘could expect a robust response if it continued to fly military aircraft in the zone. “If the trend continues, there will likely be frictions and confrontations and even a collision in the air…It is therefore an urgent task for China to further train its air force to make full preparation for potential conflicts”’.

Another important question is whether the newly declared ADIZ is reflective of a greater Chinese intention to use force to settle territorial disputes. The threat of defensive emergency military measures is in keeping with the gradual militarisation of the Senkaku Islands dispute at China’s instigation and its more muscular approach to prosecuting sovereignty claims over disputed maritime territory more generally. China has pursued a dual-faceted strategy: first, unilaterally asserting its claims backed up by a military and para-military presence and the threat of force if necessary; and secondly, expanding its claims as soon as it acquires the means, including military capabilities, to support them. The new ADIZ fits with this strategy. It represents a policy of calibrated escalation. However, while it might have produced gains in the South China Sea where China is dealing with littoral or island Southeast Asian states, it will not necessarily work in the East China Sea where China is dealing with two well-armed major powers. If the East China Sea ADIZ presages the declaration of an ADIZ over the South China Sea, as it seems it will, China will provide a common underpinning for the formation of an anti-China Asia-Pacific alliance based on territorial disputes.

Declaring the East China Sea ADIZ is not without considerable risk to China and President Xi Jinping because it puts their credibility on the line. The Americans have announced that it will be ‘business as usual’. They put this principle into practice with the B-52 overflights that cut a path right across the new ADIZ. Although detected on Chinese radar, they were allowed to pass through unchallenged, which was no different from the status quo ante. Similarly, Japan’s planes have continued their normal patrol flights in the East China Sea without any observable reaction from China .

This lack of response, in contrast to the rhetoric that accompanied the establishment of the ADIZ, undermines its credibility. At least in the short term, it is difficult to see what China has achieved apart from ‘stirring up a hornets’ nest’.

Aurelia George Mulgan is Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.

One response to “China’s ADIZ risks conflict with Japan”

  1. While it is true that the Chinese ADIZ may run the risks of cnflicts, particularly with Japan and possibly with the US, an eaarly post on this site by James Manicom puts that into a more proper perspective.
    Anyone descussing this issue must be clear that it all started with the existing zone established by Japan. Ignoring this and then saying that China attempts to change the status quo or the establishment of a zone by the Chinese would run this or that risk is either too naive or one sided, because it ignores the unfair state of the exist situation imposed on China before Chines took its action, given the fact that the zone imposed by Japan intrudes into the China side by a long distance even by the Japnese claimed middle sea line between the two sides.
    If one imposes unfair conditions on another person and the other person tries to correct that situation, why should that be a problem and be condemned by others?

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