China’s establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea has attracted a flurry of attention from around the world. Most of this has been negative attention — Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the U.S. have all issued complaints, although Japan and the U.S. have had the strongest reactions so far. By now, we’ve all heard the arguments against the ADIZ. To use the words of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, currently in Tokyo, China’s move “has raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation.” But China also had its reasons for making this move. In remarks made Tuesday, Chinese Defense Ministry Spokesman Geng Yansheng tried to clarify the Chinese perspective.
The bottom line, according to Geng, is that China’s new ADIZ is a necessary measure to defend China’s sovereignty and the security of Chinese territory and airspace. The ADIZ was set up to provide an early warning system for China’s national air defenses, and is a defensive measure not aimed at any particular country or region. As such, the ADIZ is in line with international law and conventions (my colleague Zachary Keck has more on China’s strategy of “waging lawfare”). Geng attributes the firestorm over China’s ADIZ to misunderstandings, and even intentional smear campaigns against China.
In response to the major criticism, that China is effectively claiming the ADIZ as its territorial airspace, Geng issues a flat denial. Instead, Geng clearly expresses that the ADIZ is not China’s airspace, but is a region set up within international airspace which China has designated as an identification zone. In other words, the ADIZ will not affect the freedom which other aircraft enjoy according to international law — but China reserves the right to instigate identification and investigation procedures against aircraft entering the zone. Such decisions will be made, Geng said, according to the military or civilian nature of the aircraft, its threat potential, and its distance from China. In other words, China claims the right to follow aircraft entering the zone at its sole discretion, but still acknowledges this area as international airspace.
Beijing also tries to argue that, rather than increasing the odds of a tragic accident, its new ADIZ is in fact “beneficial” for international aviation safety. According to Geng, the fact that the United States, Japan, and South Korea have all flown through the zone without notifying China only justifies the existence of the ADIZ. The airspace over the East China Sea is crowded with many flight paths, and China’s ADIZ (which will allow Beijing track all flights entering the zone) is thus good for aviation safety. By this logic, it’s not China but the government refusing to provide flight paths to China who are acting irresponsibly and increasing the chance of an accident. The ADIZ, in Geng’s words, is a “safety zone” not a “danger zone.”
Geng thus provides two clear reasons for China’s new ADIZ: it is both a defensive measure designed to give advance notice of potential threats and an attempt to increase aviation safety in the region. However, both points are undermined by mixed messages from Beijing, which seems to argue that the ADIZ is designed to do exactly what other countries have complained about: increase de facto Chinese control of a disputed region.
These contradictions appear within Geng’s own speech. He insists that China’s ADIZ does not represent a territory grab, but then later warns countries not to underestimate China’s ability to control the zone by saying China’s army has the determination and the will to safeguard Chinese territory. Geng also tries to say that the ADIZ is not aimed at any specific country (meaning it is not a power play against Japan), but later argues that the move was justified because of Japan’s actions to solidify control over the disputed islands. China had no choice but to respond to Japan by creating an ADIZ — the same ADIZ that is supposedly not targeting any particular country.
Other articles in China’s state media also undermine Geng’s arguments. A November 27 article in Xinhua argues that “since the Diaoyu Islands are an inherent part of Chinese territory, Beijing is fully justified under international law to have the air defense zone cover the islets.” The article also repeats Geng’s argument that, since Japan nationalized the disputed territories in September 2012, “China is simply forced to take countermeasure to defend its legitimate rights.” Again, Beijing can’t use this argument while simultaneously claiming its ADIZ has nothing to do with China-Japan tensions.
China’s own citizens aren’t buying the official line that Geng pitches regarding the ADIZ. According to a report by the South China Morning Post, many Chinese see the ADIZ as a declaration of China’s sovereignty over the East China Sea — even though Geng clearly states the zone is not meant to delineate Chinese territory or even airspace. Meanwhile, despite Geng’s argument that the ADIZ has nothing to do with territorial disputes, a recent poll by the Global Times Public Opinion Research Center found that 53 percent of respondents believe the ADIZ will give China “the upper hand” in its territorial dispute with Japan. Meanwhile, only 39 percent of people believe that the ADIZ will help stabilize the region, meaning less than half of Chinese agree with Geng that the ADIZ is good for aviation safety and communication.
To borrow a famous movie phrase, when it comes to the ADIZ, “what we have here is a failure to communicate.” China has every legal right to set up such as zone; as Geng Yansheng points out in his remarks, Japan created its own ADIZ in the area in 1969. Still, China’s explanations for the zone have to this point been contradictory and even disingenuous, allowing opponents of the zone ample room for criticism. No one, not even Chinese citizens, believes that the ADIZ has nothing to do with Japan or the disputed territories. It does Beijing no good to insist otherwise. Instead, Beijing should base its justifications on firmer ground: the international laws and conventions Geng mentions so briefly at the beginning of his remarks.
It also wouldn’t hurt for Beijing to take the initiative and set the example for increased communication with relevant countries in the region. Already, the U.S. government is urging China to consult with affected countries before establishing another ADIZ. Should China do so, it could significantly lower the backlash from other countries. China has the legal right to set up such zones — but even a lawful action can inflame tensions if not carried out with tact. China, which still criticizes Japan for the legal but provocative action of nationalizing the disputed territories back in 2012, should know this better than anyone.