December 09, 2013
Credit: U.S. Air Force
East Asia and the U.S. had better get used to this sort of thing. China's heavy-handed declaration of an unusually demanding air defense identification zone (ADIZ) is only one in a series of moves in which the country will gradually try to exert control over its maritime approaches. Worryingly, it may also be an early example of China's Communist Party contriving to raise international tension as a means of rallying popular support at home.
Just about everything encourages China to be more assertive in neighboring waters, from its mistrustful, sometimes hostile view of the outside world to its domestic politics, rising strength and growing nationalism—and, not least, Japan's refusal to face up to its atrocious pre-1945 behavior.
Commercial air services are running normally through the ADIZ, which covers much of the East China Sea, including islands and a reef disputed by China, Japan and South Korea. There is no disruption even of flights by Japanese airlines, which are refusing to supply the Chinese authorities with the demanded flight plans for the zone, while other countries' commercial carriers cooperate. U.S., Japanese and South Korean military flights, however, have ignored Beijing's demands.
“From now it is a question of enforcement,” says Rory Medcalf, a specialist on Asian maritime security at the Lowy Institute, a think tank in Sydney. Having now asserted its rights, how—or will—China compel other countries to fully recognize them?
Airline compliance can be enforced administratively simply by withdrawing landing rights, although there is no sign of that happening. If Beijing were to not let Japanese airlines go to China, Tokyo would surely respond likewise. There then would be no direct air services between the world's second- and third-largest economies.
Attempts at enforcing the rules on military flights would surely be dangerous. Chinese vessels sometimes collide with U.S. naval ships in China's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), trying to enforce a claimed right to exclude foreign military activity. But threatening behavior in the air can have tragic results, as shown in 2001 when a Chinese fighter pilot died after apparently flying too close to, and colliding with, a U.S. Navy EP-3 Orion intelligence aircraft.
Most media attention given to China's Nov. 23 declaration of the ADIZ has focused on ham-fisted Chinese diplomacy: ADIZs are common enough, but China made its declaration without consultation while in a tense confrontation with Japan over waters that the zone covered. (The zone also covers a reef disputed by China and South Korea, which now plans to extend its own ADIZ.) But in one respect the Chinese ADIZ is more proprietorial than is usual for such a zone: It demands flight plans for all aircraft entering it, regardless of whether they are flying to China. That is the destabilizing aspect of the move, says Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.