China’s creation of an air defence identification zone over the East China Sea is seen by many as a provocative statement from the Communist nation. But leaders of the Air Force believe the international community should view this as an opportunity to discuss how to manage air defence zones in the region.
“I hope it’s not a platform for conflict. I hope it is a platform for communication,” General Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, said on Wednesday morning at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
“I think it gives us a great mandate for communicating better with each other and understanding there could potentially be mistakes and miscommunication in this kind of interchange if we establish air defence zones that overlay airspace where we know other nations are already operating,” Welsh said. “This is a discussion that needs to happen, it needs to be an international discussion, we need to do it with our allies and I think we’re heavily involved in that right now. So I hope it’s an opportunity for better communication. That’s the only acceptable future.”
The creation of the zone, which demands aircraft flying through it to file a flight plan with the Chinese government, is politically sensitive not just for its existence but because of the territory it claims for China. The zone covers a set of small islands claimed by China and Japan, as well as Japan and Taiwan’s own longstanding air defence zones. South Korea has indicated it will extend its zone in response to China’s move.
China announced the new zone on November 23. Three days later, two Air Force B-52 bombers flew through the zone without permission from China, a clear message that was compounded days later when a dozen US and Japanese planes, including an F-15, did the same.
“They have capabilities to operate in that zone, clearly, and they have the equipment that’s fairly capable,” Welsh acknowledged when asked whether China could enforce its zone, before quickly pivoting back to his message that communication — not military force — is the best option.
The number of countries operating air defence zones around the world — and particularly in the Pacific, where Japan, South Korea, China, and Taiwan share close proximity — means diplomats have a lot to sort out.
“Clearly we need to talk about this and we need to figure out how we will coexist in that part of the world without creating conflict,” Welsh said. “There is nothing beneficial about conflict in the [region]. So we need to discuss this. This needs to be decided diplomatically.
“The global commons aren’t just maritime, they’re also the air above those maritime commons,” he added. “So we’re going to have to learn to operate in these spaces, and I think we can. I don’t think we should focus on potential for conflict, we should focus on necessity of communication.”
The military relationships between the two countries could provide an option for frank dialogue as well.
“I don’t think that the relationship between militaries will ever be the pillar of the US-China relationship, at least not in the near term. But we hope it can be part of the connective tissue of that relationship and maybe allow communication that gets us through these concerns about new airspace control measures going up, whether its China or anywhere else,” Welsh said.
Welsh added that he has an open invitation to the Chinese military air chief to visit the US and hopes it will be accepted sometime next year.