China’s air defence zone

21 December, 2013
As appeared in TheStar.com.my

ASEAN should not take sides.

THE main worries about China’s declaration on Nov 23 of the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) should not be about Beijing’s “right” to do so, but about the dangers to peace and safety it highlights.

Those dangers are caused not by China alone but by other countries as well which are in dispute or contest with it.

Since 1950, countries led by the United States have had their own ADIZs. Twenty countries now have ADIZs. Japan changed its own twice to reflect territorial claims on islands below. South Korea revised its ADIZ, first declared in 1951, on Dec 8 to include Ieodo and other islands it claims, in response to China’s two weeks before which had covered those islands.

So, it is disingenuous to claim China’s ADIZ is unilateral, although a case can be made that it is belligerent. When a country is so wound up as China has been and, especially one that is so dreadful with good communication skills, it is not surprising that it should come out in such a bellicose fashion on a matter well within its rights.

The way China has been painted to a corner is itself dangerous as it makes it more difficult to engage Beijing to address the risks to peace, stability and safety in North-East Asia and, by extension, to South-East Asia where China could, equally, declare an ADIZ over the 80% of the South China Sea it claims.

The diplomatic ganging up against China must stop and Asean should take no part in it. The remorseless narrative against that country – you just have to follow all the commentary coming out of the West on this and other issues – has come to form a bulwark to isolate it quite remote from trying to connect and engage.

It is important, on the issue at hand, first to separate fact from fallacy. The ADIZ is not a no-fly zone. I was appalled to hear a leading British intellectual I otherwise respect say so to me. It just shows up the trigger-happy Western reaction to almost everything China does that makes it difficult to achieve any kind of understanding to reduce heightened tensions which are rightly a concern.

At this time of year when people make all sorts of resolutions, it would be good in international diplomacy to make one to be more objective about China.

Second, while China’s ADIZ is no extraordinary thing as made out by so many reactions and reports, Beijing must in turn not be cack-handed and petulant when making declarations in already difficult regional circumstances. Two points are worrying: China has included military aircraft which must identify itself when all other ADIZs govern only civilian ones, and that too to maintain communication contact only if they intend to enter national airspace; the extent of China’s ADIZ covers contested islands with Korea and Japan particularly (although it must be said Japan extended its own ADIZ twice previously with the same objective).

China was wrong to include military aircraft and to insist on communication contact as if the ADIZ is national air space. And then when Chinese jets did not intercept the two US B-52s as well as Japanese and Korean warplanes that flew through China’s ADIZ shortly after its announcement, it looked to its domestic audience as if their country was being made fun of.

With tensions high just now with Japan and, by extension, the US over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, militarist cheerleaders in Tokyo are ever ready to make China look belligerent but weak. The cycle fuels further tension. Sensible engagement becomes even more difficult.

China will contend its action is defensive in nature. In response to belligerent claims and actions by Japan particularly. With support from its treaty ally the US which, while stating it is neutral on the question of sovereignty over the disputed Diayaou/Senkaku islands between the two, says it recognises Japan has control over them and therefore they are covered by America’s military obligations with its ally.

The last round in exercising control over the islands took place in September last year when the Japanese government purchased them from the private family enjoying that right. It cannot be said the Japanese are innocents over the dispute; in general, the unrepentant Japanese have been cocking a snook at China over a whole range of issues which go back to war crimes committed against the Chinese since the 1894-95 war between the two.

All this no doubt irks the Chinese. China, however, must not lose its sense of balance. Why such an expansive area of assertive control against a more limited disputed one? Can we expect a similar declaration over the WHOLE of the South China Sea because of a PARTICULAR act by the Philippines, also supported by the US?

This is a major problem in contemporary international relations, China’s sense of being pushed into a corner, besieged. And then roaring out in destabilising, unsteady, anger. This will encourage containment, not engagement. For China: a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Western narrative puts China on the mat. As always, there is a mix of fact and fiction.

There are dangers of course in the Chinese ADIZ move. We have noted the silly inclusion of military aircraft having to inform Chinese authorities before flying over the zone. But the greater danger relates to the over 500 commercial flights a day over the East China Sea. What happens if there was a miscommunication? Or the Chinese carry out the “defensive measures” threatened when there is radio silence?

As things stand, China, Japan and South Korea share information about scheduled commercial air flights, despite their overlapping claims to exclusive economic zones (EEZ). Under the auspices of the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation), there are established Flight Information Regions which offer flight information and alerting service which includes the IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe). Hopefully all this will continue without hitch with their now overlapping ADIZs in an environment of heightened tensions.

Just imagine if there was a Chinese ADIZ over the South China Sea as well. In the words of the Nov 23 declaration, China “… will adopt defensive measures to aircraft that do not cooperate.” Whatever that may mean exactly, it will contribute to an accident waiting to happen. In 2001, US and Chinese military aircraft collided over Hainan which raised tensions between the two countries; worse, in 1983 Korean Airlines flight 007 was shot down by Soviet military aircraft in allegedly sensitive airspace resulting in 269 deaths.

Commentators have thus been tearing their hair out. Back to North East Asia. One Western analyst has written: “China has converted a war of words with Japan into a full-blown, potential wartime scenario. The new Chinese ADIZ now clearly defines a battle space… under international law, Japan could view the Chinese ADIZ declaration as an act of war.”

As usual, the hyperbole obscures the reality ADIZs have been around since the 1950s. Were the Japanese ADIZs not then acts of war against China? Clearly, if bringing the temperature down is the objective, intemperate words of this kind are not helpful. They just whip up anti-China sentiment and make it extremely difficult to engage ALL parties, not just China, in a diplomacy of crisis prevention/conflict management leading to a regional system of political and security cooperation.

At the Asean-Japan summit last weekend, it was part of Japanese diplomacy to drag Asean to its side of the conflict with China, with a mix of economic inducement and one-sided threat perception. The statement at the end of the summit alluding to freedom of the high seas and airspace, as well as to the peaceful settlement of disputes, was about as far as Asean could have gone without taking sides. The greater reality was expressed by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono just before the summit: Good relations between China and Japan are critical to the future of the region. Taking sides would not have helped.

The “Asian Paradox” of outstanding economic growth and cooperation but miserable management of political and security threats can destroy peace and stability in the region. It must be a new year resolution of regional leaders, led by China and the United States, to turn swords into ploughshares before matters take a sorry turn in 2014.