Zachary Keck

China Imposes Restrictions on Air Space Over Senkaku Islands

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Zachary Keck

China Imposes Restrictions on Air Space Over Senkaku Islands

By establishing the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, China is trying to create new facts in the air.

China Imposes Restrictions on Air Space Over Senkaku Islands
Credit: DoD photo by Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen

In a move certain to escalate tensions with Japan, China’s Ministry of Defense on Saturday issued what amounts to a heavily regulated air zone over much of the East China Sea, including the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.

In a statement today China’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) announced the creation of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, which went into effect 10 AM Saturday Morning local time. A second statement by the MND laid out the Aircraft Identification Rules for the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone.

The latter statement outlines six rules aircraft flying in the zone must follow, starting with rule number one, which reads “aircraft flying in the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone must abide by these rules.”

The second rule contains four ways aircraft must identify themselves and keep in communication with Chinese authorities while flying over the zone. These include clearly marking the nationality of the aircraft and maintaining two way communications with China’s Foreign Ministry and Civil Aviation Administrative.

The third rule states that “aircraft flying in the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone should follow the instructions of the administrative organ of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone.” The next rule identifies China’s Ministry of National Defense as the administrative organ. The statement also empowers the MND to explain the rules.

Many of the identification procedures are similar to the ones used by Canada and the U.S. in the North American ADIZ that they jointly administer. The rules for that ADIZ appear to be a lot more precise, however.

Notably, rule number three in the new East China Sea ADIZ warns “China’s armed forces will adopt defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate in the identification or refuse to follow the instructions.”

While the language is vague, it appears to be consistent with how other countries handle potential violations to their ADIZ.  For instance, in two separate incidents over the summer, Russian strategic bombers entered into America’s 200 km ADIZs around the Pacific and Alaska. They were met by U.S. interceptor jets though the Pentagon refused to specify which type of aircraft the U.S. had used.

The first statement announcing the East China Sea ADIZ’s creation laid out the precise coordinates of the zone, and was accompanied by a hard to see map outlining it.

The creation of the ADIZ is in line with a growing aerial trend in the East China Sea dispute between China and Japan. In a piece on The Diplomat earlier this month, Flashpoints contributor Mira-Rapp Hooper noted, “In recent weeks, the standoff over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands has taken to the air.” She further warned that there are a number of reasons to think that “these aerial activities… may present new challenges in the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute.”

The possibility of China setting up an ADIZ in the East China Sea first leaked earlier this month when the Japanese new service Kyodo obtained an internal People’s Liberation Army document discussing the ADIZ. Kyodo noted at the time that China’s ADIZ would almost certainly overlap with Japan’s own ADIZ in the East China Sea. It also stated, “Such zones are set up by countries based on domestic law. There are no international rules concerning their establishment.” And therein lies the danger of the new ADIZ.

After announcing the ADIZ’s creation, a spokesperson for the Ministry of National Defense fielded questions about what it entailed. According to a transcript released by Chinese state media, the spokesperson explained that an “Air Defense Identification Zone is an area of air space established by a coastal state beyond its territorial airspace to timely identify, monitor, control and react to aircraft entering this zone with potential air threats.”  The U.S. Department of Defense defines ADIZs as “Airspace of defined dimensions within which the ready identification, location, and control of airborne vehicles are required.”

The spokesperson also stated that the East China Sea ADIZ had been set up, “with the aim of safeguarding state sovereignty, territorial land and air security, and maintaining flight order. This is a necessary measure taken by China in exercising its self-defense right. It is not directed against any specific country or target. It does not affect the freedom of over-flight in the related airspace.”

The MND spokesperson went on to defend the ANIZ’s creation as consistent with China’s sovereignty, international law, and precedent. In particularly, he noted that 20 nations, including some of China’s neighbors, have set up such ANIZs over the years.

When asked why the ANIZ stretched “only” 130 km from China’s territory, the spokesperson responded, “Some country established Air Defense Identification Zone as early as in 1969. The shortest distance from their zone to the Chinese mainland is also 130 km.” That was almost certainly a reference of Japan, which took control of its ANIZ from the U.S. military in 1969.

Later the same spokesperson clarified that China will continue to respect over-flight rights in accordance with international law.

“The establishment of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone does not change the legal nature of related airspace,” the MND spokesperson said. “Normal flights by international air liners in the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone will not be affected in any way.”

He concluded the press conference by saying that China would create additional ADIZs “at the right moment after necessary preparations are completed.”

The Ministry of National Defense in Taiwan, which also claims the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, issued a statement expressing regret at China’s move. It also vowed to protect Taiwan’s national security and sovereignty. Notably, the ADIZ’s boundaries did not include Taiwan proper. At the time of this writing, Japan does not appear to have issued an official response yet.

In practical terms, the creation of the ADIZ is in line with China’s goal of challenging Japan’s administration of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Just over a month after Japan nationalized some of the Senkaku Islands in September 2012, M Taylor Fravel explained China’s strategy towards its disputes with Japan in the East China Sea and Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea.

“The most striking feature of China’s behavior in its maritime disputes this year has been efforts to redefine the status quo,” Fravel wrote at the time.  “In its disputes with the Philippines and Japan, China has used the presence of its civilian maritime law enforcement agencies to create new facts on the water to strengthen China’s sovereignty claims.”

Now China is trying to create new facts in the air.