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Resolving the phony battle of the competing ADIZs

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In Brief

On 23 November, China announced the establishment of its East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). The policy, its announcement, and the prompt and selective nature of its implementation bear many of the quintessential hallmarks of Chinese statecraft.


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The policy is intended to deliver a shock to the adversary — that being Japan in this case. Although Beijing avers that the ADIZ was drawn with no target country in mind, the zone only marginally overlaps with Taiwan’s and South Korea’s ADIZs (the Korean ADIZ overlap area has since been enlarged by Seoul). No Chinese military aircraft has yet flown into these overlapping zones. By contrast, Chinese surveillance aircraft have flown across the breadth and (most of the) length of the overlapping portion of Tokyo’s ADIZ.

The policy is intended to be a political rejoinder (in an escalating series) to an immediate provocation — the alteration of the status quo by the Noda government’s private purchase of three Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in September 2012. The purchase was officially frowned upon by even Japan’s chief ally, the United States. That Chinese coast guard vessels have also asserted an operational presence in the Senkaku/Diaoyu territorial sea 72 times since the islands’ purchase suggests that Beijing will persist in fanning the flames of a fire that it did not light.

The Abe government would be well-advised to not pursue the proposed ‘maritime communications mechanism’ arrangement for the time being, given the frigid state of bilateral ties. It isn’t a coincidence that ground was broken towards devising this arrangement during the Fukuda and Hatoyama years — the only two Japanese governments perceived as Beijing-friendly over this past decade. As China’s recent Border Defence Cooperation Agreement with India bears out, a period of political quiet and trust needs to be engendered prior to resumption of high-level discussions on confidence-building measures.

China’s policy is intended to provoke a reaction, and a self-defeating one at that. And Japan, by barring its airline companies from notifying Chinese authorities of flights traversing the new zone’s overlapping portion —  even as American, South Korean and Taiwanese commercial air-traffic are complying — has played into China’s hands. Over time, its relative isolation on this point will only become clearer. The Abe government’s instruction is also inconsistent with Japan’s own notification policy. Tokyo’s ADIZ overlaps with the Taipei Flight Information Region (FIR), much like China’s ADIZ overlaps with the Japanese FIR. And like China, Japan too has required since 2009 that all commercial traffic traversing the overlapping section to onward destinations in north-eastern China notify their flight plans to Japanese authorities.

The post-September 2012 Chinese pressure on the Senkaku/Diaoyu has ironically been a blessing in disguise for Japan’s other neighbours, as Tokyo has played nice to deflect the possibility of a hostile united front on jurisdiction-related matters. Seoul has recently accomplished what it had unsuccessfully sought since 1963: Tokyo’s acquiescence to the enlargement and overlap of its ADIZ; and, Taipei, what 16 rounds of talks with Tokyo since 1996 had failed to achieve: a jointly administered fisheries zone in the Senkaku/Diaoyu waters.

China’s policy is intended to fully comport with international practice — albeit with an element of the extra-legal. An ADIZ is set up under a given nation’s domestic laws, not international law, and serves as a defensive perimeter beyond territorial airspace to monitor incursions by suspicious aircraft. It does not connote claim to territory; that claim exists separately — much like Japan’s claims to Dokdo/Takeshima and the Kuril Islands/Northern Territories exist separately.

China’s Survey and Mapping Law of 2002, promulgated in the wake of the 2001 EP-3 incident, identifies the limits of Beijing’s sovereignty in the skies to its 12 nautical mile territorial airspace. As such, the unspecified ‘defensive emergency measures’ in China’s ADIZ notification is for all practical purposes envisaged to intercept and escort suspicious, non-military air targets beyond the national airspace that are deemed to be a threat during peacetime. That said, incorporating the skies over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands within its alert zone is a show of exceedingly poor form on Beijing’s part. No other country in the region extends its ADIZ to cover disputed territory that it fails to effectively control.

The policy treads along a furrowed path long ploughed by adversaries — timed to unsettle the strategic environment. It is inconsistent of Japan to decry China’s notification for its unilateralism and abruptness when its own ADIZ (along with that of South Korea and Taiwan) was notified without prior consultation in the early-1950s. Tokyo’s ADIZ does not limit itself to the median line in the East China Sea either. In 2010, Japan’s modification of the Japan-Taiwan ADIZ separation line over Yonaguni Island was brought into force on roughly two days’ notice — similar to that which Beijing allegedly provided to Seoul (of course, Tokyo was left uniformed).

As to China’s timing, the extension of PLAAF patrols beyond the territorial sea in the Taiwan Straits (following Lee Teng-hui’s presidential election in 1996) and up to the median line in 1999 (following Lee’s ‘two states’ comment) suggests that a political — not military — calculus of deterrence informs China’s ADIZ policy.

Going forward, three things need to happen.

Foremost, it is imperative that all non-commercial, manned Chinese aircraft refrain from entering the territorial airspace over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The danger and fallout from a collision is real and present. Equally, the Abe government must vigilantly ensure that the status quo on the islands is not disturbed as it enters an active phase of national security policymaking, which includes solidifying the defence of its outlying territories. Second, China must make every effort to establish protocols with neighbouring militaries on ADIZ enforcement — either tacitly on the lines of its practices with the Taiwanese air force in the Straits or explicitly on the lines established mutually between the South Korean and Japanese militaries. Finally, when China does notify its ADIZs in the Yellow and the South China Seas to protect its (current and future) home-ported aircraft carriers, China must make every effort to consult with adjacent and interested littorals.

Ultimately, it rests on Abe’s shoulders to make a best endeavour effort towards admitting a dispute or, at minimum, admitting the contestable legitimacy of Beijing’s claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands if this latest chapter of Sino-Japanese tensions is to be closed.

Sourabh Gupta is Senior Research Associate at Samuels International Associates Inc., Washington DC.

One response to “Resolving the phony battle of the competing ADIZs”

  1. This piece contains several major errors.

    First, the ADIZ is illegal because Beijing’s claim to the Senkakus is a completely invented claim and dates only from 1971. Japan has clear sovereignty over the islands. Beijing’s claim is a classic Chinese expansionist move in which it claims the territory of a neighbor, then quote mines its historical texts to invent a claim. Its legitimacy is underlain by the strange belief that “China” is something that stretches back centuries, a belief we give no other nation. Everyone would think it quite absurd if Ankara started reclaiming Ottoman territories, but nobody thinks it strange when Beijing does the same thing.

    For the recency of Beijing’s claims, see my piece in the Diplomat:

    Second, Japan’s nationalization of the islands sparked nothing; Beijing had already begun to cause trouble long before that, beginning in the 2004-5 time frame and escalating regularly. See, for example, the fishing boat ramming incident of 2010. It was a defensive response to the possibility of the islands being purchased by a Chinese or the Beijing government itself from their longtime private owner. It is not accurate to claim to argue that the nationalization was the start of something.

    The purpose of the ADIZ, strangely not mentioned here, is to force Japan to in principle recognize Beijing’s sovereignty over the Senkakus via accepting the legality of the ADIZ and following Beijing’s unusual instruction that all aircraft MUST report to Beijing.

    The promulgation of this ADIZ will be viewed as one of those moments like the remilitarization of the Rhineland or the Spanish attack on Drake and Hawkins off San Juan de Ulua, that signals which way history is going to go. We are headed for war in Asia, and headed there because of China’s expansionism.

    Michael Turton
    The View from Taiwan

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