Time to regulate air defence zones to prevent conflict | South China Morning Post
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  • Jan 24, 2015
  • Updated: 6:00am

Air Defence Identification Zone

The Air Defense Identification Zone is airspace over land or water in which the ready identification, location, and control of civil aircraft over land or water is required in the interest of national security. China's Defence Ministry announced its ADIZ over a vast area in the East China Sea on November 23, 2013, which covers the area around the Diaoyu islands, controlled by Japan and known as the Senkaku Islands. The establishment of this zone drew strong opposition from Japan, the US and South Korea, becoming a flashpoint in East Asian politics and security. 

CommentInsight & Opinion

Time to regulate air defence zones to prevent conflict

Mark Valencia says tensions raised by China's newly declared air defence identification zone in the East China Sea point to the urgent need for rules of conduct to avert confrontation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 November, 2013, 6:14pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 November, 2013, 6:16am

On November 23, China sent an air patrol to back up its newly declared air defence identification zone over the East China Sea. Japan scrambled fighter jets in response. According to China's announcement of the zone, any military aircraft entering it would need to submit its flight plans, maintain radio communication and reply promptly to identification inquiries from Chinese authorities.

China also said that its armed forces "will adopt defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not co-operate in the identification or refuse to follow the instructions". Further complicating the situation, China's zone partially overlaps those of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, and overlies the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. The timing and manner of China's actions have undoubtedly complicated an already dangerous situation.

In theory, overlapping identification zones are not unusual and can be managed  co-operatively

Officials and analysts in Japan and the US viewed these actions as stretching the already taut rope of China-Japan relations. Japan said that China's new zone escalated the danger of accidental "collisions" between the Chinese military and US and Japanese counterparts, and lodged a "serious protest".

US Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement of concern, urging China "not to implement its threat to take action against aircraft that do not identify themselves or obey orders from Beijing".

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel was more blunt. He said the imposition of the zone was a "destabilising attempt to alter the status quo in the region". Hagel reminded Beijing that the disputed islands are covered by the 1952 US-Japan security treaty and, in the event of an attack, the US is committed to fighting alongside Japan against a "common danger".

Japan indicated that aircraft from its Self Defence Force would ignore Beijing's orders to obtain its permission before entering. And Hagel said it would not change how the US conducts military operations in the region.

Backing up this statement, on Tuesday, two B-52 bombers out of Guam flew into China's new zone without "filing flight plans, radioing ahead or registering our frequencies", apparently trying to ensure the Chinese version of the zone does not add to customary law. China said that it had monitored the aircraft - but did nothing else.

This move seemed to contradict the US position that China and Japan should resolve the issue by diplomatic means. But it may have helped mitigate Japan's urge to immediately increase its deployment of ships and planes to the area.

Obviously, the situation is fraught with brinkmanship and "opportunities" for confrontation - unless cooler heads prevail.

From China's perspective, it was simply "levelling the playing field". China has a "right" by international precedent and practice to declare an air defence identification zone to protect its sovereignty over territory and the maritime areas it claims. Moreover, China said the zone rules would not affect normal commercial air traffic, implying that it applies to military aircraft only.

This aspect needs clarification. Xinhua claimed the zone "could contribute to regional peace and security by curbing the increasing rampancy of Japan's right-wing forces". Indeed, in China's view, it is an increasingly nationalistic and aggressive Japan that has altered the "status quo" by "nationalising" the disputed islands. In this context, China's declaration was probably in part a reaction to Japan's "threat" to shoot down China's drones flying over the disputed area.

Air defence identification zones are not new and have always been unilateral and controversial. More than 20 countries have declared such zones. According to Chinese media, Japan's air defence identification zone was created by the US and transferred to the Japanese for management in 1969. They said Japan has since unilaterally expanded the zone twice, in 1972 and 2010. Japan's zone is not recognised by China or Russia, they said.

The US has five air defence identification zones around North America, including a large one off Alaska and the Aleutian Islands extending several hundreds of kilometres out to sea. In this zone, both foreign civilian and military aircraft are monitored and interrogated. The US zone is jointly administered by civilian air traffic control authorities and the North American Aerospace Defence Command.

The US requires any aircraft entering its zone to radio its planned course and destination. Any aircraft in this zone without authorisation may be treated as a threat, potentially leading to interception by fighter aircraft.

Although Kerry said the US does not recognise the right of a coastal nation to apply its air defence identification zone procedures to foreign aircraft not intending to enter its national air space, in actual practice the US does attempt to apply its zone to military aircraft not intending to enter US airspace. For example, the US routinely scrambles jet fighters to intercept Russian bombers in its zone, regardless of "destination". In the past few months alone, US jets have intercepted Bear bombers in the Alaska zone at least five times.

In theory, overlapping zones are not unusual and can be managed co-operatively as is the case with the US and Canada. But, in the East China Sea, they involve airspace over islands and maritime space disputed by two antagonists, and thus there is potential for conflict.

Hopefully, all sides will exercise restraint and this situation can be negotiated and resolved with perhaps some voluntary guidelines for conduct of military aircraft in the areas of overlapping zones. Japan and Russia have a regular consultative process "to monitor military interactions and prevent risky behaviour" around the disputed Northern Territories/southern Kuril Islands.

But, right now, there are no formally agreed rules regarding air defence identification zones or conduct within them. Perhaps a UN-sponsored conference could help formulate an international agreement addressing these issues. Next week's visit by US Vice-President Joe Biden to Japan, China and South Korea - in that order - is an opportunity to initiate a way forward.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct research associate at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies


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