Written by J. Michael Cole.
The announcement by China on November 23 that it had established and would enforce an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea is the latest in a series of worrying developments under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping, and one that unnecessarily increases the risks of miscalculation and war.
Under international law, countries are fully entitled to create ADIZs (not to be confused with “no-fly zones”) near their territories. In fact, several countries, including Canada, have one. However, the zone set up by China last week is somewhat problematic, as it overlaps with ADIZs already established by Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. More controversially, it includes the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Diaoyutai islets in the East China Sea, which are claimed by Tokyo, Beijing, and Taipei, and which have been the source of dangerous tensions between Japan and China.
Consequently, rather than serving the legitimate purpose of helping China protect itself against potentially hostile intrusions into its airspace, Saturday’s move has every appearance of a gambit meant to consolidate China’s sovereignty claims over the contested islands (admittedly, Japan’s own extension of its ADIZ in 2010 served a similar aim).
Given the context and the timing of the decisions, it is difficult to regard the move as other than escalatory. Beijing’s critics didn’t wait long to express their alarm. Hours after the announcement, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called the move “a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region and “unilateral action [that] increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations.” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called it a “dangerous act,” while on November 26 Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs summoned the Chinese ambassador to convey Canberra’s concerns. Taipei has also expressed worries, saying the move undermined President Ma Ying-jeou’s “East China Sea Peace initiative.”
The inherent dangers in China’s move quickly became apparent on Tuesday when two unaccompanied U.S. B-52 bombers conducted “routine” training exercises through airspace covered in China’s extended ADIZ. China did not respond. Two days later, both Japan and South Korea announced that they had flown military aircraft through China’s ADIZ without complying with Beijing’s regulations. The next day, China said it had sent advanced fighters on patrols in the zone. Moreover, while a number of commercial airlines within the region have begun to comply with China’s ADIZ by providing flight plans for flights that transit through the zone, All Nippon Airlines and Japan Airlines have since reversed an earlier decision and announced that they would not do so, ostensibly in response to pressure from the Japanese government. South Korean airlines have also said that they will not abide by China’s ADIZ regulations, unless Seoul overrules that decision.
This has all the ingredients of an explosive situation in an area that is already rife with tensions. With the U.S., which insists on retaining the freedom of its military aircraft to operate in the region, and Japan clearly stating that they will not recognize the legitimacy of China’s extended ADIZ, Chinese authorities now find themselves in an awkward situation. By enforcing the rules and taking “defensive” measures within the ADIZ, China would increase the risk of war within the region. Conversely, failing to defend it would constitute a potentially damaging loss of face for Beijing and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Interestingly, in a sign that China might already be seeking a flexible “third option,” Beijing issued on Wednesday brief a statement in which it argued that the B-52 aircraft that Washington claimed had entered the zone did not enter the ADIZ, but only flew “along the edge.”
The unilateral imposition of the ADIZ, accompanied by the refusal by Tokyo and Washington to recognize its legitimacy, undeniably increases the likelihood of error, with potentially devastating consequences. Aviation safety is contingent on adherence to a set of rules by all parties involved. That is the reason why civilian airlines have traditionally made it a policy to immediately grant de facto recognition to ADIZ regulations, regardless of the politics behind them. But in the present case, politics seem to have superseded such habits, and consequently we now find ourselves in a situation where most, but not all, parties involve will provide flight plans to Beijing when transiting through the East China Sea, which adds complexity to the system and needlessly puts civilians at risk.
There already is a history of civilian aviation falling victim to such errors. On September 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 en route from New York City to Seoul (via Anchorage) was shot down by a Su-15 Soviet interceptor over the Sea of Japan, killing all 269 passengers on board. Moscow initially denied the incident, but later complained that the aircraft was on a spy mission. Although KAL007 was undeniably a civilian flight, it occurred at a time of high tensions and in an area where U.S. spy planes were known to be operating. A similar incident took place on July 3, 1988, when Iran Air Flight 655 was shot down by U.S. surface-to-air missiles. In this instance, the U.S. military reportedly confused the Airbus A300 for a F-14 Tomcat from the Iranian Air Force. All 290 people on board perished as the aircraft was blown to bits over the Strait of Hormuz.
Both incidents occurred during period of tensions — the Cold War and the Iran-Iraq War, respectively — where the risks of miscalculation and escalation were high. By many metrics, the situation in the East China Sea today is equally conflictual, with Japan and China as the principal belligerents, the U.S. as a Japan security treaty ally, and Taiwan as a third claimant to the disputed islets.
Unless Beijing decides not to enforce its ADIZ, the PLA Air Force will increase the frequency of sorties, which will likely prompt Japan to respond in kind and thus raise the number of airborne objects that need to be tracked in the area. For the foreseeable future, U.S. surveillance aircraft will test Beijing’s will and surveillance capabilities by continuing to penetrate the area without providing the flight information requested by China. We should also take note of the introduction of unmanned aerial vehicles, which already operate in the area, as a new variable in international aviation safety, and one that will exacerbate the challenge of telling friend from foe in the East China Sea. Added to civilian traffic that only partially complies with China’s ADIZ, rising nationalism in China and Japan, and a government in Beijing that is unquestionably more prone to risk-taking, the chances of miscalculation, if not military clashes, are therefore substantially higher. This is the price we all pay as China uses international law to create facts on the ground.
How comfortable we are with this new situation depends on whether we can trust Chinese leaders, air controllers, radar systems, and relatively inexperienced combat pilots to make the right decision 100% of the time.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based contributor to Jane’s Defence Weekly and the Diplomat, and a former analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.