China’s air zone stirs tensions but within rights

Author: James Manicom, Centre for International Governance Innovation

On 23 November China announced the creation of an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea. All aircraft flying through the zone are required to lodge their flight plan with Chinese authorities and be available for contact by Chinese authorities. Violators will elicit ‘defensive manoeuvres’ from Chinese aircraft, presumably interception.

The move comes at a particularly volatile period in China’s foreign relations because most of its maritime neighbours are unnerved by recent Chinese behaviour in East Asian waters. Despite the swift and firm condemnation from the United States, Japan, South Korea and Australia, it bears considering that the Chinese declaration itself is unproblematic; it merely adds China to the minority list of countries — around 20 — that enforce ADIZs beyond their national airspace. However, the zone may increase the risk of an incident over contested waters in East Asia.

Chinese spokespeople were quick to offer assurances that ‘normal international flights’ were not affected, despite the language in the declaration that ‘all flights must follow these rules’. China has not clarified what constitutes a normal international flight.

ADIZs are not precluded by the Chicago Convention, which established the rules for air travel, but they do not in any way reflect common international law practice. There are roughly 20 states that claim them currently, including Australia, Canada, Germany, Iceland, India, Norway, Pakistan, and the UK. Moreover, it is a cardinal principle of international maritime law that freedoms of navigation and over-flight are identical and cannot be limited by coastal states. Reflecting this US national interest, America’s ADIZ rules are not applied to military aircraft; they are intercepted in any event. Likewise, when they operate abroad, US military aircraft ignore ADIZs declared by other countries..

The Chinese ADIZ has jurisdictional and operational implications for the United States and Japan.

From an American perspective, the ADIZ is consistent with China’s views of its jurisdiction over the waters and airspace adjacent to its shores. China is one of a minority of states that require permission for military ships to exercise their innocent passage rights through its territorial sea and for military activities in its exclusive economic zone. It stands to reason that, with the zone’s declaration, Beijing now expects the same over international airspace adjacent to China. The Chinese language about what they perceive their rights in the zone to be reflects this perspective. PLA Air Force spokesperson Shen Jinke noted that the Chinese air force can effectively control the ADIZ, which is a curious way to describe an area of the global commons.

It is thus unsurprising that shortly after the announcement the United States led efforts to send military aircraft through China’s new ADIZ. Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel noted that the new rules will not affect US military flights and the two B52 bombers that flew through the zone on Tuesday were an operational expression of this view, as they did not seek prior permission from Chinese authorities. US reconnaissance flights off the Chinese coast beyond its national airspace but through its ADIZ are likely to continue. However, if the purpose of the ADIZ was to create a pretext for Chinese interception of foreign aircraft Beijing deems suspicious, including US military aircraft, the law is unnecessary because such interceptions were already taking place.

If the effect of the ADIZ is to increase the number of interceptions then there is cause for operational concern given the past record of Chinese pilots. The United States attributes the cause of the collision between an American EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft and a Chinese F8 fighter in April 2001 to the recklessness of the Chinese pilot.

From a Japanese perspective, the jurisdictional concern relates to overlapping exercises of state authority. China and Japan claim similar authority over the same area, and will be politically unwilling to be seen as conceding to the other side’s authority.

Indeed, Japanese airlines are under pressure from Tokyo to ignore the new rules. Moreover, Japanese military aircraft regularly patrol the East China Sea to track the Chinese Navy, particularly its submarines, and to keep an eye on Chinese oil and gas field developments near the median line, which are also located in the now overlapping Chinese and Japanese ADIZs. Depending on what each side determines to be ‘suspicious’ or dangerous behaviour, one side could ask the other to leave the airspace in question. Provided both sides exercise restraint the chances of escalation should be minimal.

From an operational perspective, Japanese and Chinese naval assets operating in close proximity have often come too close to one another since 2010, leading to diplomatic protests about the conduct of the other at sea. The well-known incident in January 2013 in which a Chinese frigate locked its weapon-targeting radar onto a Japanese destroyer indicates that there remain severe command and control or competence issues in some parts of the Chinese Navy. Herein lies the risk of escalation.

Moving forward it is unlikely that China will rescind the ADIZ, but it is not inconceivable that East Asia could learn to live with it. South Korea, which was reportedly alerted to the declaration beforehand, is already in discussions with China. It is likely that American and Chinese officials will begin talks on the issue as their military to military ties improve. Japan is the major challenge because of its progressively worsening relationship with China. Chinese interceptions of Japanese aircraft, rather than vice-versa, will increase subject to Chinese capacity. Japanese policymakers would be well served to engage their Chinese counterparts in dialogue and resist the reactionary and nativist pressures to reply in kind, perhaps with a high-profile visit to the Yasukuni Shrine.

In the long run, this crisis may be remembered more for the reaction than any consequential crisis. Although China’s declaration is poorly timed it does not, as the US government has argued, amount to a change in the status quo. The Japanese trace this to China’s incursion into the territorial sea of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in December 2008, while China argues that Japan changed the status following the nationalisation of the islands last year. By comparison China’s ADIZ declaration is minor. Nevertheless, the US government and Western media outlets, such as the Washington Post, have argued that the move is exceptional. On the contrary, China has the sovereign right to declare an ADIZ. Given that the United States and a number of its allies maintain ADIZs — and that Japan extended its zone closer to China in recent years — to accuse the Chinese in this way simply reinforces the narrative within China that the West is trying to keep the country down. This perception will marginalise those within China that favour détente with Tokyo and Washington and in the long run undermine the peace and stability of East Asia.

James Manicom is a Research Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, Canada. He is author of Bridging Troubled Waters: China, Japan and Maritime Order in the East China Sea