IPCS Debate

China and Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ): Assertive Unilateralism?

10 Dec, 2013    ·   4214

Angana Guha Roy looks into the larger objectives behind China's ADIZ strategy

A day after China launched its first Stealth Drone ‘Lijan’, it also announced its Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in East China Sea, overlapping with the existing ADIZ by Japan and South Korea. Does this demonstrate China’s strategic attempt to evoke concern among its neighbours and other major players in the region? What are China’s Air Identification Rules? Do they violate International norms? Why China has abruptly come up with this strategy?
While questioning China’s real intention to establish an ADIZ, it has been speculated that this is an attempt  ‘to possibly buttress its maritime and territorial claims’. Meanwhile China has elicited international criticism for the Air Identification Rules (AIR) it has put forward. The most important is - China did not consult any of its neighbours before announcing  the ADIZ. 
Air Identification Rules (AIR)

According to China’s National Defence Ministry document any aircraft must abide by certain rules while flying through the ADIZ. The document provides few Identification criterions. It asks international  aircrafts to report flight plans,  maintain two way radio communications,  activate the transponder if an aircraft has to broadcast their location, clearly mark their nationalities and the logo of their registration identification. 
As per the AIR, any aircraft flying through the zone must follow the instruction of the Ministry of National Defence of the PRC, the ‘administrative organ’ of the ECS ADIZ. In case, any aircraft refuse to follow the identification rules, China’s armed forces shall adopt ‘defensive emergency measures’ to respond to non-cooperating aircraft.

Confronting International Norms? 
The legal position China has taken for the ADIZ establishes a version of sovereign airspace. The unilateral imposition of its regulatory document departs from accepted practice. First, it does not distinguish between aircraft flying through the zone with no intention of flying into China’s airspace and those that do, unlike the US. 
The US Secretary of State John Kerry has stated, ‘freedom of overflight and other internationally lawful uses of sea and airspace are essential to prosperity, stability, and security in the Pacific. We don’t support efforts by any state to apply its ADIZ procedures to foreign aircraft not intending to enter its national airspace’. 
Secondly, the ‘Means of Identification’ violates the international norm of airborne ‘innocent passage’ by asking for Flight Plan reports. Thirdly, its Radio Identification Criteria violates UNCLOS treaty according to which the aircrafts at all times ‘monitor the radio frequency assigned by competent internationally designated Air Traffic Control (ATC) authority or appropriate international distress radio frequency. 
Thus, China’s credibility to cover all transits could be questioned. It has issued a warning statement in the regulatory document to the extent that it can adopt ‘defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate in the identification or otherwise refuse to follow the instructions.’ This is contradictory to the international norms that exempt state aircraft from any such obligation to any national authority so far the transit is with ‘due regard for the safety of civil aviation’. 
Strategic Objectives

China’s ADIZ strategy has rattled Northeast Asia. The strategic move has abruptly come up during a period when Japan under the leadership of Abe, is trying to increase its military capability. It has encompassed the airspace over the disputed Senkaku Island, now owned by Japan, in its ADIZ.  As per the Air Identification Rules, Japan has to share its flight report or provide Identification details to China over the Island it itself owns. This clearly indicates China’s strategy to challenge Japan on the disputed zone.
In an interview political scientist Ian Bremmer says, ‘It’s important to remember that this was a plan Beijing had been developing ever since last summer (if not before), when Japan’s then prime minister Noda purchased more of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, altering the longstanding status quo from Beijing’s perspective...Beijing wanted to maximize the chances of getting this done with limited pushback from the US ..With that as the goal, it was good timing...the Iran nuclear deal was underway, for which the Chinese foreign minister was supporting John Kerry in Geneva.’ 

China has also gone ahead to include the disputed Leodo reef, also claimed by South Korea, that falls under their respective Exclusive Economic Zone. This will perhaps, give China an airspace leverage on Leodo, which in accordance to UNCLOS can’t be claimed by any country, for being a ‘submerged reef’ under the water.
China’s ADIZ strategy has projected its assertive unilateral attitude in the region. This no doubt indicates its attempt to establish a sovereign airspace in the region. Although to justify its attempt, it has referred to countries like US and Japan who has previously established ADIZ, it didn’t follow their course of bilateralism in this regard. US which established the first ADIZ setting the tradition coordinated with Canada. On the other hand, Japan, despite facing much opposition from Taiwan, coordinated with it before implementing the planned action. 
But China’s move was sudden and abrupt, projecting its impudent foreign policy attitude. Does this in turn, portends any trouble for China’s other South Asian counterparts, hinting towards its tendency to impose unilateralism as per its national interests?