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ADIZs: separating fact from fiction

by Mark J. Valencia

There has been a lot of huffing and puffing out of Washington and Tokyo in the wake of China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that “the U.S. does not support efforts by any state to apply procedures of an air defense identification zone to foreign aircraft not intending to enter its national airspace. We urge China not to implement its threat to take action against aircraft that do not identify themselves or obey orders from Beijing.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was more blunt. He said the imposition of the zone was a “destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region.”

Hagel reminded Beijing “that the disputed islands are covered by the 1952 U.S.-Japan security treaty under which the U.S. is committed to fighting alongside Japan to repel any common danger.”

Tokyo filed a “serious protest” and Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said after telephone talks with Hagel that “We agreed that China’s one-sided action could trigger an unexpected incident and is extremely dangerous.”

But how does this verbal finger pointing and wagging hold up under scrutiny?

First of all, there are no international legal bases for such zones and their “rules” — except perhaps the general principles of “self-defense” and “freedom of overflight” — and the former will always take precedence — for any country. The establishment and implementation of ADIZs have always been unilateral and controversial. For example, China and Russia do not recognize Japan’s ADIZs.

The U.S. established the precedent of an ADIZ and its rules — for itself and Japan, Taiwan and South Korea — after World War II, and thinks that all other nations’ ADIZs should be based on their model. But being first does not justify dictating the rules for all, especially in the absence of an international agreement. That is of course unless one considers oneself the model for the world. In that case this flap is more about the fundamental clash between the existing dominant world power and the rising or “risen” China.

The U.S. seems to have three objections to the new Chinese zone: (1) it overlaps those of its neighbors, (2) it includes both military and civilian aircraft, and (3) its rules are applied to aircraft that are only transiting the zone. Let’s look at these objections one by one.

The fact that China’s new ADIZ overlaps that of Japan, Taiwan and South Korea obviously complicates the politics of the East China Sea dispute — especially since both China and Japan now have “dueling” ADIZs over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. But it is not “illegal” and is perhaps part of a strategy to “level the legal playing field” vis-a-vis Japan’s claims and actions in the disputed area.

Indeed in China’s view, it is an increasingly nationalistic and aggressive Japan that has altered the status quo by “nationalizing” the disputed islands and threatening to shoot down its drones in the disputed area. And Japan won’t even acknowledge that there is a dispute.

Of course this overlap and the manner and timing of its implementation increase the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations. But China has the same self-defense “right” to establish such as zone as did Japan — or more accurately the U.S. “on Japan’s behalf.”

Second, the U.S. claims that it only applies its rules of prior notification — or “recommendations” — to civilian, not military aircraft, and that they only apply to aircraft destined for U.S. territorial airspace. In practice, however, the U.S. monitors and often intercepts with fighter jets both civilian and military aircraft that do not follow the “recommendations” of identifying themselves and their destinations, particularly Russian Bear bombers in the Alaskan ADIZs.

The U.S. may try to split legal hairs by arguing that the notification “requests” only apply to civilian aircraft and that foreign military aircraft are monitored and intercepted under “another system.” The practical effect is the same.

And whatever that system may be, surely China and other countries have a right to do the same. Moreover the U.S. practice clearly applies to all aircraft regardless of intended destination.

China claims that its ADIZs rules do not “affect” normal commercial traffic and that they do not interfere with freedom of over flight. This aspect certainly requires clarification and reassurance. But so far China has not shown any hostile intent.

Indeed, it has done nothing more than monitor and observe foreign military aircraft flying unannounced in its ADIZ —following the same practice as the U.S. and Japan.

The U.S. has been urging China and Japan to resolve their disputes in the East China Sea by diplomatic means. So its provocative unannounced flight of U.S. B-52 bombers into China’s ADIZ as a response to its declaration seems rather hypocritical on this point as well.

Rather than vitriolic rhetoric and brinkmanship, needed now are cool heads and negotiations to harmonize the basis and rules for ADIZ — and conduct within them. Hopefully U.S. Vice President Joe Biden initiated relevant discussions during his trip to the region this week.

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