China's ADIZ

Last year the People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of National Defence announced the creation of the East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) which faced lot of criticism and got reactions from all over the world.

China also announced Aircraft Identification rules for the ADIZ. The zone overlaps the existing ADIZ of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. It also covers the disputed Senkaku islands that are claimed by China, Japan and Taiwan and also the Leodo/Suyan rock that is claimed by China and South Korea.

The announcement by China on ADIZ was met with concern and dissatisfaction from Japan, USA, Australia, South Korea and Taiwan.

A day after the announcement, China conducted two aerial patrols over the area. It sent Tu-154 and Y-8 aircrafts, prompting the Japanese Air Self-defence Force to send two F-15 Fighter Jets to intercept them. Later, South Korea and Japan sent their surveillance aircrafts into the area in the East China Sea. Joining its regional allies in condemning China’s decision to establish the zone, USA also defied Beijing by flying two B-52 bombers through the area three days after China’s announcement.


Apart from this becoming a cat-and-mouse game, such developments are potentially dangerous for a region that is already extremely vulnerable as tensions remain constantly high owing to the contentious territorial disputes between regional countries.

The new zone could boost chances for accidents and conflicts even if the two sides wouldn’t have initially intended to because the situation created by the creation of this particular ADIZ is such that paranoia and suspicion among concerned parties will remain high at all times.

The ADIZ significantly escalates tensions not only in the airspace, but also the maritime zones in the region because China’s outline of the ADIZ seems to be a direct result of the ongoing disputes in the sea. This has great ramifications for the security architecture in the region.

Many analysts believe that Beijing’s move is not intended to spark any aerial confrontations but rather, is a long term strategy to solidify claims to disputed territories by simply marking the area as its own.

The zone is seen primarily as China’s latest aggressive bid to bolster its claim over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Beijing has stepped up its sovereignty claims since Tokyo’s nationalization of the islands last year. Interestingly, China’s ADIZ also covers the disputed rock to which both South Korea and China lay claims to.

According to the Chinese Ministry of National Defence, foreign aircrafts in the zone will be expected to abide by certain rules laid down by them.

Firstly, China demands that any aircraft in the zone must report its flight plan to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Civil Aviation Administration. An aircraft in the zone is also expected to maintain a two-way radio communication so that it is able to respond in a ‘timely and accurate manner to inquiries’.

Secondly, not only must an aircraft keep its Radar Beacon system on during its time in the zone, it must also clearly display insignia indicating its nationality and registration.

Lastly, the aircrafts in the zone are expected to follow instructions by the Chinese military for otherwise, it could adopt ‘emergency defensive measures’ in response to aircrafts that refuse to follow instructions.

In addition, three days after the defence zone came into effect, the state controlled People’s Daily said that while ‘freedom of flight’ would be respected for ‘normal’ flights, the principle would not apply to ‘provocative flyover and surveillance activities’. Chinese ministry of National Defence insisted that it wasn’t a no-fly zone and it would not affect the freedom of flights based on international laws. By stating that ‘different countries have different rules’, the Chinese foreign ministry sought to justify its set of rules.

A Chinese spokesperson said that China had controlled flight activity of 800 foreign war planes that entered the area in the first month of the establishment of the ADIZ. During the same period, 56 airline companies in 23 countries have reported 21,475 scheduled flights to China while China has sent 51 surveillance aircrafts, early warning aircrafts and fighters on a total of 87 flights for policing or patrolling the ADIZ air space.


Responding to the developments, US Vice President Joe Biden, who was visiting Asian countries like China, Japan and South Korea at the time, reaffirmed that USA’s military operations would remain unaltered in the face of Chinese operations and that Article V of US-Japan Mutual Defence Treaty wherein USA would provide support to Japan in the eventuality of war would be regarded.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denounced China’s declaration as a dangerous attempt to change the status quo in East China Sea through coercion and vowed to protect Japan’s air and sea space. He demanded China to ‘revoke any measures that could infringe upon the freedom of flight in international air space’. However, China declined to do so.

South Korea also expressed its reservations over China’s unilateral drawing of the ADIZ. It affirmed that it would maintain its jurisdictional right to waters around the disputed Leodo/Suyan Rock, which South Korea considers a part of its territory.

For South Korea, the problem is that China’s ADIZ overlaps with its ADIZ off the southern island of Jeju, which is under the airspace already patrolled by the South Korean Air Force. Also included within the Chinese zone is the South Korea controlled submerged rock known as Leodo rock in South Korea and Suyan in China, the ownership of which has been historically disputed between the two. The South Korean Navy included Leodo within its area of operations, which significantly increases the potential of maritime conflicts between South Korea and China.

While Australia also summoned China’s ambassador to voice its concerns, no South-East Asian governments offered a response to the development. However, two days after China’s announcement, at a Japan-ASEAN summit in Tokyo, the leaders of Japan and ASEAN countries pledged to work together to ensure ‘freedom of over-flight in the region’.

Japan also rallied for support from ASEAN countries, some of whom are locked up in territorial disputes with China. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been making economic and political efforts to court ASEAN neighbors in the backdrop of Chinese expansion in the region. Regional airlines such as Singapore Airlines, Qantas and two Japanese airlines planned to give an advance notice of their flight plans through the zone.

China commented that the USA was among the first to setup an ADIZ in 1950 and later, 20 countries, including Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Philippines set up theirs with USA’s support. China accused USA of maintaining double standards against it, saying that it was hypocritical of USA to voice concerns against China’s ADIZ.

China’s aircraft identification rules make no distinction between aircrafts flying parallel with China’s coastline and through the ADIZ and those flying towards China’s territorial space.

In this sense, USA doesn’t apply its ADIZ procedures to foreign aircrafts not intending to enter its airspace. USA also maintains that China’s zone also impinges on international air space that is regularly used by commercial carries and civilian aircrafts.

When Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel stated this, he also implied that US would not recognize China’s claimed right to take action against even those aircrafts that are not intending to enter its airspace.

However, this will increase China’s paranoia as much as it will heighten tensions, creating an environment of constant vulnerability because any aircraft could very easily fall into the ambit of what China may consider with suspicion.

Though China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) spokesperson claimed that its action of creating the ADIZ is a necessary measure taken by his country to its self-defence rights and that it wasn’t directed against any specific country or target, many believe that the decision is aimed at strengthening Beijing’s claims over the disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Risk of confrontation

Beijing’s actions further increase tensions between China and Japan at a time when their bilateral relations are at an all time low. Because there is a very large overlap between China’s ADIZ and Japan’s ADIZ, it heightens the risk of confrontation in light of their ongoing territorial disputes because, if an aircraft from either country is flying in the overlapping area, the other side is likely to scramble fighters and intercept the aircraft.

China may also be responding to recent Japanese warnings that it reserves the right to shoot down unmanned drones that pose a threat to Japanese airspace. In the previous months, both China and Japan have often scrambled their aircrafts around the disputed islands in efforts to deter the other. If interceptions and responses are not conducted safely and in accordance with international norms, a collision is possible.

Therefore, by creating an ADIZ that includes the Senkaku Islands, Beijing may believe that it has established a basis for challenging and taking action against Japanese aircrafts operating in this zone. Now that China has deployed such an aggressive offensive, it has provided Japan with the legitimacy to have an equally tough defensive.

Also, despite the well brewing relations between South Korea and China, where important diplomats have been fostering positive relations between the countries, China’s move could cause unwanted trouble in their new relationship.

Many analysts identify the move as part of an assertive and aggressive new Chinese foreign policy which is aimed at testing USA’s resolve and commitment to its Rebalancing Asia policy.

The establishment of the ADIZ seems to be at odds with the Xi administration’s foreign policy vision. Since Xi came to power, the Chinese leadership has seemed to focus on fostering relations with regional neighbors.

China has sough to mitigate the tensions with ASEAN over territorial disputes in the South China Sea by adopting a more constructive approach to manage the problem. Xi Jinping and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stepped up their overtures last year at the APEC and EAS meetings.

These efforts look completely contrary to the stand taking against Japan. However, it is in fact Beijing’s long standing tradition to avoid tensions on multiple fronts at a time. Thus even though it is locked in territorial disputes with ASEAN countries, it hasn’t stepped up its ante there as much as it has in the East China Sea with its ADIZ development where it is in a dispute with Japan. Thus, the friendlier approach toward South-East Asia seems to be a necessary precursor to an even tougher policy toward Japan.

However, it has also left open the possibility that it could declare more zones in the region, notably in the South China Sea where it is engaged in territorial disputes with Philippines, Vietnam and others. However, Chinese aggression of this kind could bolster domestic as well as regional support for Japan’s security agenda.

Whatever Beijing’s motives were in declaring the zone, it will certainly add to growing international and regional suspicion as China continues to increasingly assert its growing power. At the same time, the creation of such a zone, which, debated as it is  because of its location, timing and situation will also add to China’s paranoia as much as China accepts it to psychologically deter Japan and USA from their forward policies in that region.

The ADIZ has created a state of disequilibrium which will keep the situation tense till the concerned countries don’t practice mutual restraint.

Close coordination and defence cooperation between USA, Japan, South Korea and other regional partners could dissuade Beijing from further pursuing any aggressive strategy that can potentially undermine regional security.

This is certainly a challenge for the security architecture and if the delicate situation is not handled with utmost care, it could lead to conflict with dangerous consequences.