South Korea announced Sunday that it is expanding its 62 year-old air defense identification zone in a clear reaction to China’s own new ADIZ. The announcement adds over 66,000 sq. km (over 25,000 sq. mi) to Korea’s ADIZ. The expanded zone will cover the submerged rocks that are the subject of a territorial dispute between South Korea and China and will overlap with the ADIZs of both China and Japan (For more background on South Korea’s reaction to China’s ADIZ, see the analysis by my colleagues Ankit Panda and Zachary Keck.)
According to remarks by Jang Hyuk, head of policy for South Korea’s Defense Ministry, the government believes that the move “will not significantly impact our relationships with China and with Japan as we try to work for peace and cooperation in Northeast Asia.” Unlike China, South Korea’s government tried to control the inevitable tensions caused by its move by conferring in advance with neighboring countries, including the U.S., China, and Japan. According to Jang Hyuk, “related countries” are overall “in agreement that this move complies with international regulations and is not an excessive measure.”
China had a decidedly muted reaction to South Korea’s announcement. Partially, this was an inevitable result of China’s own insistence that its ADIZ was in accordance with international precedent and convention — China would have a hard time now arguing that South Korea has no right to expand its own ADIZ. In response to a question about the issue, China Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesman Hong Lei confirmed that China had been notified in advance by the Republic of Korea (ROK).
Still, Hong commented that “China expresses regret” over the decision to expand the Korean ADIZ. “China will stay in communication with the ROK in the principle of equality and mutual respect,” Hong added. “We hope that the ROK will meet China halfway.” As for the issue of the disputed territories, Hong Lei stressed that “an ADIZ is not the [sic] territorial airspace … It has nothing to do with maritime and air jurisdiction.” In other words, China is resisting the obvious temptation to consider Korea’s expanded ADIZ as a threat to territorial sovereignty.
China’s restraint towards South Korea only draws more attention to it diplomatic row with Japan. Japan’s parliament recently passed a resolution calling for China to rescind its ADIZ. China’s reaction to this development was far more aggressive than its response to South Korea: “Japan’s accusation against China confuses right and wrong and is totally groundless,” Hong Lei said. China is “strongly dissatisfied” with Japan, two words that don’t get used a few questions later when Hong Lei is asked about South Korea.
Interestingly, most of the concern Chinese scholars do show over South Korea’s move circles back to Japan. In an op-ed for China News, Xue Baosheng of Jilin University writes that China is concerned that Japan might use Korea’s action as an excuse to make its own provocative moves. Xue worries that South Korea may not truly understand the “sinister motives” of Japanese authorities, which mean the ROK government could be “hijacked” by Japan to attack China. South Korea, then, is not a threat in itself, but only a danger to China should Korea become a pawn in Japan’s larger game.
Most Chinese commentators, including Xue, feel a certain kinship with South Korea because both countries suffered under Japanese occupation during World War II. An editorial in the Global Times noted that if Japan had been the one to expand its ADIZ, it would have provoked a strong reaction from China. South Korea, however can get away with such a move both because of its generally good relations with China and because China does not seem to view the ROK as a rival. The Global Times editorial dismissed Korea’s move as a “small tactical advantage” with no major strategic significance; it’s impossible to imagine China reacting so apathetically to any Japanese moves in the East China Sea.
The Global Times also noted how different the regional reactions were to South Korea’s expanded ADIZ. The U.S. State Department in particular issued a statement implicitly comparing South Korea’s ADIZ announcement to China’s: “We appreciate the ROK’s efforts to pursue this action in a responsible, deliberate fashion by prior consultations with the United States and its neighbors, including Japan and China.” The statement added, “We also appreciate [South Korea’s] commitment to implement this adjustment to its ADIZ in a manner consistent with international practice and respect for the freedom of overflight and other internationally lawful uses of international airspace,” noting that South Korea does not expect commercial aircraft to comply with the ADIZ regulations.
The Global Times argued that U.S. and Japanese hostility to China is a reflection of China’s status a “rising major power.” In other words, the article suggests that, like China, the U.S. and Japan don’t see South Korea as a rival, and are more willing to accept its security moves. Still, there’s a limit to this rather paternalistic view of South Korea. The editorial warned that, should South Korea cross the line in its relationship with China, China could retaliate by disrupting economic ties or by stirring up trouble with North Korea.
Despite the warning, China remains cautiously accepting of South Korea’s latest move. This is a testament to the relative strength of China-ROK relations. However, it also serves to highlight a point that China has repeatedly denied, that the new ADIZ is aimed straight at Japan. By all but ignoring South Korea’s response but pouncing aggressively on Japan’s every reaction, China makes it clear which country it views as a strategic rival in the region.