The East China ADIZ and the Curious Case of South Korea
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The East China ADIZ and the Curious Case of South Korea


Much has been said and written already about China’s unilateral establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) earlier this week. Reactions in Japan and the United States have been well-documented, but little analysis has been devoted exclusively to the South Korean angle on the ADIZ issue. The ADIZ, even it was a ham-fisted and poorly conceived strategic attempt to exert Chinese sovereignty over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, did not necessarily have to overlap with about 3,000 square kilometers of South Korea’s own ADIZ, encompassing Ieodo (Suyan) Rock and grazing the Western fringe of Jeju-do’s airspace in the process.

Coverage from Monday in the South Korean press was less-than-sympathetic to the Chinese ADIZ. The Hankyoreh began its report by noting the inclusion of Ieodo in the ADIZ. The Chinese press, for its part, immediately disseminated a Chinese defense ministry statement that China had “no territorial dispute” with Seoul over Ieodo in an attempt to offset the tension. The report included a statement by Qin Gang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, who clarified that the two would resolve the issue via “friendly consultations and negotiations.”

The official South Korea response was significantly more muted than Japan’s. For example, Park Geun-hye did not make any public denunciations of the ADIZ while Shinzo Abe responded publicly and comprehensively. The South Korean high-level response came from Kim Min-seok, the defense minister, who said that Korea would continue to fly in the area covered by the ADIZ without informing China. The Wall Street Journal reports that South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, speaking at a defense forum, said that the ADIZ imposition by China had made “tricky regional situations even more difficult to deal with” — a fairly muted response.

South Korea will have the first opportunity to engage in a high-level defense dialogue with China over the ADIZ issue tomorrow when the Korea-China vice defense ministerial-level strategic dialogue takes place. The ADIZ was included on the agenda at the last minute, and Chinese delegates are expected to clarify the meaning of the ADIZ to their South Korean counterparts.  China officially maintains that the ADIZ is a stabilizing attempt to reduce misunderstandings in the air — something its neighbors and the United States have been reluctant to accept.

However, a Xinhua piece announcing the fact that South Korea and China would discuss the ADIZ at the dialogue beginning tomorrow included the same sort of assertive language used in the general ADIZ announcement: “Any airplane that fails to follow such rules will face emergency defense measures taken by the Chinese military.” This implies that China is not ready to make any exceptions for South Korea.

The beauty of a unilateral move like an ADIZ is that the country imposing the zone gets to decide how the lines are drawn on the map. The Chinese decision to draw the ADIZ such that it was guaranteed to raise the ire of South Korea is odd. With South Korea, the PRC was fortunate enough to avoid the sorts of territorial rigmaroles it often finds itself in with Japan, Taiwan  and various Southeast Asian states (over the South China Sea). South Korea and China had also found themselves converging over their common historical distaste for Japan along nationalist lines — a phenomenon abetted by the almost concomitant election of conservative Park Geun-hye in Korea and Shinzo Abe in Japan.

It’s perhaps too early to make a definitive determination about the impact the Chinese ADIZ will have on future relations between China and South Korea. South Korea’s restrained rhetorical response and China’s immediate attempts to set the record straight on Ieodo indicate that the ADIZ’s northeastern frontier, near Jeju-do, may have been an oversight on China’s part.

On the flip side, China, which sees the ADIZ as an important defensive measure, may have made a strategic calculation that running the ADIZ’s frontiers so close to South Korean airspace could offer a greater buffer against United States’ forces based in South Korea. Of course, if yesterday’s B-52 flyby showed the Chinese anything, that may have been somewhat of a miscalculation as well.

What should give South Korea pause over the ADIZ is the possible imposition of such zones in the future by China, something Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesman Yang Yujun claimed was in the pipes: “China will establish other Air Defense Identification Zones at the right moment after necessary preparations are completed.” A future ADIZ off the Bohai Sea and into the Yellow Sea would have serious implications for South Korean security.

December 6, 2013 at 01:11

China and Korea will quietly resolve any ADIZ issues since there isn’t that much of an overlap in what both sides claim. Recent Korean naval exercises near Ieodo rock is to show Korean resolve to defend its territorial integrity, not only Ieodo rock, but for Dokdo islands as well. Doubling Korea’s fleet of Aegis destroyers/cruisers is a response, not only to China, but to a Japan that is increasingly militant in the face of its decline.

Dominic Yusoff
November 29, 2013 at 17:21

I concur with MEK. Indeed there has been some controversy over attempts by SK “conservatives” to amend current textbooks in Korea. For e.g they want included that Japanese colonization also brought benefits and the very controversial claim that there were North Korean agent provacateurs in the Gwanju Uprising. Also, although not “Pro-Japanese”, many Korean conservatives have a more balanced view of Japan than their so-called progressive counterparts.

November 28, 2013 at 23:52

“South Korea and China had also found themselves converging over their common historical distaste for Japan along nationalist lines — a phenomenon abetted by the almost concomitant election of conservative Park Geun-hye in Korea and Shinzo Abe in Japan”
While this seems to make sense at first glance, the conservatives in S. Korea are the less nationalistic of the two parties. The liberals are the party that are more likely to bang the Korean nationalist drum, be more forgiving of N. Korea, and be more adamant in rejecting any move by Japan that hints at a return to colonial-era relations. If anything, the election of Park Geun-hye has tempered anti-Japan sentiment and policy in S. Korea. The conservatives are also decidedly more pro-American, which limits the extent to which they’ll side with the Chinese or antagonize the Japanese. The liberal/conservative labels are often misleading in the ROK.

November 28, 2013 at 12:44

It is like the South China Sea people still use it after the PRC claimed as sovereign territory. You can sail a carrier task force down the Straits of Taiwan if you want, you have no air support and it is a death trap, SAM city. So it really defeats the purpose of putting yourself in that position. These claims are a long game, just as with the SCS that it has not been enforced as of yet, don’t judge it as a failure or on these first actions alone. The PRC if not the PLA are still playing nice, they know they can shoot down a violator and there will be no war and the US will enforce restraint, as with Turkey and Syria as with the ROK and DPRK. Small mercies, be thankful for. Now Japan has the US backing other do not, not a mutual defense agreement as does the ROK. So others in dispite with the PRC over territory what hope do they have, this action would have been planned long ago, the US deal with Iran some say compromise, the PRC support then use to show as weakness make their play, so look to the nations in the SCS, best they can hope for is negotiations and they walk out still wearing their under garments. Everyone looks East the PRC looks South, in that case the move is effective in sending a message to those nations.

December 11, 2013 at 12:41

Inchoherent banter. U.S. is obligated to defend Japan, its defacto protectorate under the terms of Japan’s unconditional surrender. But it would be stupid to think that the U.S. would fight a war with China triggered by Japan over some uninhabitted islands that the U.S. wanted to transfer to Chiang Kai-Shek in the first place. The U.S. will carefully choose to back one country over another based on its interests. Both China and the U.S. will make calculations based on a rapidly declining Japan and emerging Korea.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief