China’s announcement of a new air defense zone in the East China Sea is a dangerous move towards brinkmanship in territorial disputes in the region. Aimed at “safeguarding state sovereignty, territorial land and air security and maintaining flight order” the “East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone" came into effect from 23 November 2013, 10 AM Beijing Time. The areas encompassed by the new zone include territories claimed by South Korea and Japan. Although Chinese Defence Ministry Spokesperson, Yang Jiejun emphasized that the creation of this zone would not “affect the freedom of flight in relevant airspace”, the rules for identification for aircraft entering the zone released by Chinese government sources, suggest otherwise. Aircrafts will now need to respond to Chinese queries regarding flight path and nationality, as well as maintain two-way radio communications. Failure to comply with these requirements will supposedly invite Chinese military intervention.
According to Yang the new Air Defense Identification Zone has no particular target and “China will take timely measures to deal with air threats and unidentified flying objects from the sea, including identification, monitoring, control and disposition, and it hopes all relevant sides positively cooperate and jointly maintain flying safety.”
This recent development by China does not in any way further flight safety in the area concerned. At best, civilian aircraft will have to identify themselves to multiple agencies in the region. At worst, military aircraft will not comply with Chinese regulations and there will entail a military standoff.
It is the later, worst case scenario that seems more probable. South Korea has already stated its regret that China's new zone overlapped in some part with the South Korean military zone and covered Ieodo, a rock claimed by Seoul. The South Korean Defense military spokesperson was explicit in reiterating its territorial control over Ieodo. Japan has lodged protests with the Chinese embassy in Japan and the United States too has expressed concern over China’s moves.
The exacerbation of tensions between China and Japan over contesting claims in the East China Sea is a reasonable expectation in light of recent developments. Since the Japanese nationalisation of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands claimed by both China and Japan in the East China in September 2012, China and Japan have been engaged in a dangerous game of chicken. December 2012 saw the first violation of Japanese airspace by Chinese jets since Japan began keeping records of such events. In September 2013, a Chinese Unmanned Ariel Vehicle (UAV) flew close to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Japan has already said that it would shoot down unmanned aircraft in Japanese airspace and the Chinese have stated that such an action would constitute an “act of war”. Chinese maritime patrol vessels have been regularly entering what Japan considers its own territorial waters with the latest transgression occurring on 22 November.
Even though the Japanese government has called for keeping open diplomatic engagement with China, on the issue of the disputed islands, China believes that the Abe administration follows a policy of “Three nos” related to the dispute - no recognition, no shelving and no dialogue. On the Chinese side, recognition of a dispute and reversal of the nationalisation of three islands undertaken in September 2012 seem to have become preconditions to any diplomatic solution. Given that both Japan and China seem unwilling to compromise on stated positions, the announcement of the air defense identification zone by China will only destabilise the situation.
This announcement by China of the new air defense identification zone is counterproductive for the country. It reinforces the idea of an aggressive China that seeks to establish expansionist territorial claims through intimidation or military means. As such, the creation of the new air defense zone can be seen as a move similar to the creation of the Sansha military garrison in the South China Sea – an attempt to seek de facto control of claimed territories. It seriously challenges the Chinese narrative of seeking resolution of differences through diplomatic means. Past incidents involving skirmished between Chinese fishing vessels and Japanese coastguard were excused as not having state sanction. Chinese denial of a radar lock on a Japanese warship in January 2013 was interpreted as unwillingness to escalate conflict. There is no such explanation available for this latest move. China cannot but be aware that recent developments have laid the ground for immediate escalation of minor incidents. Should China undertake military action against Japanese aircraft that do not comply with the announced Chinese regulations, it is to be expected that Japan too would respond in kind. Since December 2012, Japanese F-15s have been scrambled many times as a response to Chinese presence near the disputed islands.
The United States recognizes Japanese administrative control over the disputed islands and has stated that this falls under the purview of the US-Japan security treaty. Willy nilly then, the US too may be dragged into the dispute. China, that has couched its development in the rhetoric of peace for the past many decades, seems to have belied the ‘peaceful development’ narrative through this one move.
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