China’s air defense zone: The shape of things to come?

By James Steinberg and Michael E. O'Hanlon
December 16, 2013

China’s announcement of an air defense identification zone (AIDZ) that covers substantial portions of the East China Sea has unleashed a storm of concern among China’s neighbors — as well as in the United States.

For China’s action reflects the deeper challenge now posed by its growing military capability and international activism. Vice President Joe Biden was on solid ground when he objected strenuously to this new air defense zone during his recent trip to the region.

Washington and Beijing each insists it wants to build a “new kind of major power relationship.” If they are to succeed, however, and enhance peace and stability across the region, they must develop new strategies to manage their growing tensions.

China defended its new defense zone by asserting that its actions are consistent with international law. Beijing’s arguments are unconvincing, however, because they don’t address the reasons why this particular air defense zone is so troubling.

In contrast with the usual defense zone — which helps build stability by reducing the chances of accidents based on mistaken identity — the unilateral and assertive nature of the new Chinese effort increases the risk of conflict.

Consider the underlying justification for an air defense zone and why it is an accepted practice. Under international law, a country’s sovereignty in airspace derives from its sovereignty over the territorial rights underneath. All airspace outside these boundaries is part of the global commons.

But this presents a dilemma. If countries cannot act against a potential threat from the air until it approaches within 12 miles of shore, the time to act is short. If there is ambiguity about an incoming aircraft’s intentions, there will be pressure to shoot first and ask questions later.

When tensions are high — particularly in this age of terrorism from the sky — the pressure to act increases. Even when the nature of the threat is unknown.

Enter the ADIZ. By pushing the boundary to identify aircraft headed for territorial space, there is more time to resolve ambiguities and avoid engagement of benign aircraft. A nation would have stronger justification for taking action against an unknown aircraft entering sovereign airspace if that aircraft failed to identify itself.

For an aircraft crossing the air defense zone, but not approaching territorial airspace, the failure to identify would be inconsequential since there would be no basis for taking action against it. So, by expanding the decision-making time and reducing the risk of mistake, ADIZs can increase stability consistent with a nation’s legitimate right of self-defense.

So shouldn’t we welcome China’s decision? No. Because China has not demonstrated that its goal is benign.

There are simple steps that Beijing could have taken to reassure its neighbors and the international community. First, China could have consulted with others before imposing the ADIZ and explained its rationale.

Second, China could have made clear how it intends to implement the zone. Beijing could have explained, for example, that the zone’s geographic scope was focused on approaches to the mainland, that China was not asserting sovereignty in ADIZ, that it was not claiming the right to engage non-compliant aircraft in international airspace, and that any patrols in the ADIZ would be unarmed to monitor (and if necessary, cue territorial air defense assets) if an unidentified aircraft entered China’s airspace.

By failing to provide reassurance, China has given other nations justification to draw less benign conclusions. They could view this as the latest chapter in Beijing’s attempt to unilaterally alter the status quo in connection with its local territorial disputes. In doing so, China has prompted its neighbors to respond in ways that heighten the risk of conflict, such as instructing civilian aircraft not to comply.

Because China offered no reassurance, the United States acted appropriately in demonstrating a resolve not to acquiesce in this destabilizing action.  Washington must, however, provide its own reassurance. It should communicate in advance U.S. intent to exercise its rights for legitimate military transits — in ways that cannot be construed as a threat to China.

Washington, for example, could communicate the general nature of air transit, though not necessarily the specific flight plan. Such transparency would vindicate U.S. rights, while reducing the risk of accidents or destabilizing action-reaction cycles. It would be better to use fighters or long-range patrol aircraft to assert this principle, rather than long-range bombers like the B-52 — which could be viewed as an implicit threat to China’s territorial rights.

Even as we push back against Beijing’s decision, Washington should consider other measures to provide appropriate reassurance about each side’s intentions.

The United States and China could, for example, adopt an Open Skies regimen, modeled on the U.S.-Russian experience, flying unarmed and pre-approved reconnaissance sorties as a way of building trust.

Without such proactive thinking about how to relieve growing tensions from China’s ascendance in international power and stature, we are likely to confront many more crises like this — or worse — in the years and decades ahead.


PHOTO (TOP): U.S. Navy FA-18 Hornets park on the flight deck of the USS George Washington during the Annual Exercise 2013, at sea November 28, 2013. While the Navy would not confirm the exact coordinates, they said the event took place, at one point at least, in the general vicinity, though not within, the China’s new airspace defense zone China. REUTERS/Kyodo

PHOTO (INSERT): A Chinese military plane Y-8 airborne early warning plane flies through airspace between Okinawa prefecture’s main island and the smaller Miyako island in southern Japan, over the Pacific, in this handout photo taken on October 27, 2013. REUTERS/Joint Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan/Handout via Reuters


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