China’s ADIZ over the East China Sea

IITM CSC Article #68
18 December 2013

China’s ADIZ over the East China Sea

The prime motivation and aim of China’s enforcement of Air Defence Identification Zone over East China Sea was to strengthen its sovereignty claim on Senkaku Islands under the effective control of Japan (known as Diaoyu in China). This act was triggered by Japan’s nationalisation of the contested territory a year ago. China took various measures to challenging Japanese sovereignty over the territory including sending naval ships and fighter aircrafts. It announced creation of the defense zone in its latest bid to claim Chinese sovereignty over Senkaku/Diaoyu. But China, knowingly or unknowingly, have angered its other neighbour South Korea and the US which has bases in the region. They have reasons to be wary of China’s move as it will have security implications for the region and will hamper their surveillance and reconnaissance activities. Since China expects that all those flying through the zone should take prior permission and share certain information, they can no more fly freely through the Chinese identified zone.

The announcement by China to create the new defence zone came as a surprise to South Korea as the move was announced barely a week before a Strategic Defense Dialogue between Beijing and Seoul which was scheduled for 28th November. The major bone of contention between the two is that the Chinese ADIZ covers Ieodo, a submerged rock west of Jeju Island, on which South Korea built an ocean research centre in 2003. The South Korean side raised the issue with China during their Strategic Defense Dialogue and requested Beijing to “readjust” the defense zone to exclude Ieodo. China has rejected the demand and there are demands from the domestic constituencies on the South Korean government to extend its ADIZ to cover the submerged rock. Seoul, perhaps under the domestic pressure, has announced that it will extend its ADIZ to include the territory in East China Sea. This is likely to annoy China and may worsen their diplomatic relations which so far has been very stable especially after the assumption of South Korea’s mandarin speaking president. Korea has not recognised China’s defense zone and its fighter jets have flown through the zone in an act of defiance.

Japan has been very perturbed over the Chinese move. Following a high level delegation of Japanese businessmen that intereacted with senior political figures in China, there was hope that that political interaction between the two countries would be be back on track following Japan’s nationalisation of Senkakus. But the recent developments have watered down those hopes. Japan also remains defiant and has sent its fighter jets in the Chinese enforced zone to signal that it does not accept it Chinese claim on the air space over the Senkaku.

The Chinese ADIZ will also has implications for the US. The US has been stationing its forces on South Korean, Japanese territory and the Guam and has announced increasing its footprint in the Asia Pacific under its ambitious “pivot to Asia” policy. The US has been maintaining at least officially, that its pivot to Asia strategy is aimed at keeping North Korea in check. The changed scenario is likely to alter the East Asian power balance which so far has been in favour of the US and its regional allies.

It will also have ramifications for the South China Sea where some ASEAN members and China have competing claims over the islands that lie there. China has hinted that it has been contemplating similar defence zone for the South China Sea. If China does so, it would expand the defence zone to a wider area

of East and South China Sea. Various security analysts have pointed out that China is working on a “first Island Chain” linking East China Sea to South China Sea and the Chinese navy wants to maintain effective control of the waters within this island chain. Chinese ships’ regular navigation in the East China Sea following Japan’s nationalisation of the Senkaku Islands suggest that China has been successful, though partially, in strengthen its grip. The next likely scenario could be that of Beijing trying to strengthen its command of the airspace over the East and South China Sea. There is speculation that China is working on anti area access denial strategy in this regiona. Against this background it will not be surprising if China announces a similar air defence zone around South China Sea.

The ADIZ also requires civilian flights to share information and logos before entering their ADIZs. China has announced that those flights who do not abide by their laws and cooperate with the ADIZ and Chinese aviation authorities. The Chinese defence ministry articulates that “China’s armed forces will adopt defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate in the identification and refuse to follow the instructions.” However, the countries who contest the Chinese defense zone have asked their aviation bodies not to abide by these laws as it would give the Chinese the impression that the particular country have accepted the legitimacy of Chinese defense zone.

The emerging scenario warrants an immediate intervention and response from the international community to ponder over an internationally agreed principle to share the air space over high seas in line with the United Nation Convention on the Laws of Sea. If the world community, especially the democracies, are advocating the “freedom of navigation” on the high seas considering them global commons, why not consider “freedom of flight” over the high seas? An agreed principles and a common understanding will certainly ease the tension and stop the air powers to encroach upon air space over the high seas.


Shamshad A. Khan,
Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
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