China’s announcement of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea has come in for widespread criticism, including from Japan, the US and Australia. Already, the US and Japan have made it clear that their aircraft will not comply, and the Pentagon has made its point by continuing its training missions within the zone

I agree with the view that China’s move is, on balance, a destabilising step, and one that will make tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands even harder to manage. This is the very opposite of the kind of diplomatic leadership former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating called for in a recent speech reported on this site. It also flies directly in the face of recent statements by the Australian, US and Japanese governments opposing coercive or unilateral changes to the status quo in the East China Sea. It is more than ‘poking and prodding’; it is using a grey area of international law in an attempt to expand a geographic zone of accepted Chinese authority.

But in opposing China’s new move, it is important to be clear about precisely why it is objectionable, and why it did not have to be so.

An ADIZ is not a provocative or negative step in itself; indeed, it can be in the interests of stability and security of the nation enforcing it. Many countries have such zones already, including Japan, South Korea and the US, which started the whole trend decades ago.

If China’s new zone did not include disputed maritime territory, if its requirements for compliance applied only to aircraft heading into Chinese airspace, and if neighbours like Japan and South Korea had been consulted ahead of the announcement, then there would be little or nothing for others to object to. Indeed, it could have been part of a wider strategy of cooperation to reduce maritime security risks in North Asia.

Instead, there are several things wrong with China's declared position:

  • It is a unilateral step, announced suddenly and apparently without consultation with two countries whose civilian and military aircraft will be most affected, the US and Japan.
  • It includes a contested maritime area, notably the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and thus can be seen as a deliberate effort to change the status quo, even a provocation.
  • Its ‘rules’ demanding that aircraft identify themselves and obey Chinese direction on flight paths seem to apply to all aircraft in the zone and not only aircraft en route to China. This conflicts with the basic early warning and air-traffic control purposes of an ADIZ, and with longstanding Pentagon regulations advising US military aircraft to comply with a foreign ADIZ only when they flying on a course into that country’s airspace, not when they are simply in transit or on patrol.
  • It looks like a pretext for one of two undesirable security outcomes. If foreign aircraft now regularly obey the new Chinese rules, we will see precedents set for the unilateral expansion of Chinese authority over contested maritime territory. Alternately, if foreign aircraft contest or ignore the Chinese zone and a dangerous or deadly incident occurs (such as a collision or a forceful encounter), then China will have prepared the way to absolve itself of legal or moral blame, making it easier to use the incident as a justification to escalate the crisis if China so chooses.

If the motive for establishing the ADIZ was solely or genuinely about the prevention of risky incidents, then China’s bureaucratic energies would have been better spent on reaching out and negotiating with Japan and America to craft effective ‘confidence-building measures’: communications protocols, hotlines and ‘rules of the road’, or incidents-at-sea (and in-the-air) agreements.

Instead, tension has become the new normal in the East China Sea, and it won’t end here. It was striking that the official Chinese announcement of the new zone included these words:

China will establish other Air Defense Identification Zones at the right moment after necessary preparations are completed.

It sounds like we should expect another such zone over a substantial part of the South China Sea before too long.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Toby Melville.