Special Commentary

China and Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ): An Airman’s Perspective

17 Dec, 2013    ·   4218

Gp Capt (Retd) PI Muralidharan says that the Chinese declaration seems to be an essentially political move thus far

The People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of National Defence announced on 23 November 2013 the creation of a new Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea. This, incidentally, includes air space over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands claimed jointly by China, Taiwan and Japan, as well as that over the Ieodo /Suyan Reef claimed both by PRC and South Korea. The Senkaku Islands are located around 400 km from Okinawa and about 200 km from Hainan Island which houses the Chinese PLAN Pacific Fleet.

Understandably, the Chinese declaration has drawn strong protests from affected countries such as Japan and ROK, and other concerned nations such as the US, Australia and Taiwan. On 25 November 2013, two USAF B-52s from Guam flew through the newly declared ADIZ in challenge, but apparently drew no reaction from the Chinese. The Japanese have been exercising ‘administrative control’ over the Senkaku Islands for decades, officially nationalising them in September 2012, when it was bought from its Japanese owners by the government. Traditionally, sovereign control of any land territory is tantamount to control of its air space and maritime boundaries and not the other way around. It is conceivable during a war situation that air power could be employed to enforce an ADIZ in the manner the Chinese seek to enforce during relatively peaceful climes. Also, the Chinese declaration of an ADIZ does not per se enhance China’s legal claim over these islands. Another moot point is whether the Chinese could enforce this ADIZ deep in the East China Sea (at air distances of around 200 km, somewhat like India’s ‘Bombay High’ from Mumbai). The aerial assets/ radars, communication networks, manpower etc required to provide air defence over these kinds of distances from the mainland would be mind-boggling. Therefore, the declaration thus far remains essentially ‘political’. 

On 24 November 2013, China flew a TU-154 and another Y-8 aircraft on patrol over the Senkaku, eliciting an Air Defence reaction from two Japanese F-15s who intercepted them. The Chinese have also claimed that they scrambled fighters in response to two US and ten Japanese aircraft recently. The potential for miscalculation and a resultant ‘air incident’ is therefore rife. Meanwhile the Koreans have sought to get the Chinese to realign their ADIZ to avoid overlapping with their own areas, which the Chinese have declined to do. As it stands, the US and Australia have refused to recognise the ADIZ for their military traffic, and the Japanese and the South Koreans have also decided to flout its norms. Although declaration of ADIZs is the sovereign right of nations, the international norm is that countries do not unilaterally declare them and that too overlapping those of other nations, and over disputed territories/air spaces.

Why this ADIZ?
Whilst claiming that the move was not directed against any specific country or threat, China clearly seeks to strengthen its claims over the disputed island territories in the East/South China Seas, following its September 2012 submission to the UN for baselines to demarcate maritime boundaries around disputed island territories. It is also possible that China is reacting to recent Japanese threats to shoot down Chinese UAVs considered to be encroaching upon their air space. By crafting an ADIZ encompassing the Senkaku Islands, the Chinese perhaps believe that they have established a basis for acting against Japanese aircraft operating over the islands. Also, this could be the precursor for more such ADIZs to be set up over other contentious areas such as the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and other islands in the Yellow Sea. Also, the Chinese would like to collate data on the numbers of Japanese ‘intrusions’ into its ADIZ, indeed, akin to the data the Japanese have traditionally been publishing on Chinese and Russian air intrusions.

International Law on ADIZs
The Chinese declaration requires aircraft entering the ADIZ to report flight information to Chinese authorities; failure to comply would prompt ‘defensive emergency measures to be adopted by their armed forces’. Clearly provocative, these measures could lead to miscalculations, or worse still, aerial clashes or mid air collisions, like what happened with the American P3A over the Hainan Islands in 2001, which has the potential to trigger wider conflict. Lessons from air incidents between the Turkish and Greek Air Forces over disputed island territories in the Aegean Sea area also cannot be forgotten.

An ADIZ is defined as airspace over land or water in which identification, location and control of all aircraft is required in the interests of national air defence. This means that civil aircraft transiting through this zone are required to file a flight plan with the controlling agency, in this case, the PLA Air Force or PLAN Air Force, as the case may be. Based on principles of self- defence and precaution, since 1950, some 50 nations including the US, UK, Canada, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, India and Pakistan have adopted ADIZ measures in their national air defence architecture. ADIZs do not thus stand for national or territorial boundaries and they do not justify interference in another nation’s aerial navigation rights, especially over international waters and during times other than war. The legal validity of ADIZs has never been challenged worldwide and they cannot be banned under existing international norms. This also means that traditional over flight permissions to military aircraft through these Zones need to be ensured.

China’s ADIZ in the East China Sea imposes requirements on civil and military aircraft - such as filing of a flight plan and declaring operating radio frequencies - whereas normal ADIZs apply only to civil aircraft. In fact, ADIZ procedures in the US do not apply to any foreign air carrier not bound for US territorial air space. Should China now go ahead with its future plans to establish an ADIZ over the South China Sea, it would be seen as a destabilising move, violating the spirit of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC-SCS). Japan had unilaterally extended its ADIZ in May 2013 to reach 130 km from mainland China. The new Chinese ADIZ, interestingly, approaches the same distance i.e. 130 km from the Japan-claimed Senkaku Islands.

Can China Pull It Off Militarily?
Considering the technical difficulties in establishing an effective ADIZ (at a distance significantly far removed from mainland and coastal environs), the Chinese are clearly playing for the political mileage that could be extracted from the declaration. Any effective air defence umbrella over an area so far away from the Chinese mainland (around 200 km) would require an asset base that the Chinese presently are woefully short of, namely seaborne air defence radars, several numbers of AWACS/AEW aircraft, aerial refueling aircraft to augment the ranges of interceptors, AWACS platforms, and effective, secure communications, modern identification - friend or foe (IFF) systems throughout the air defence order of battle. Only a country such as the US has the wherewithal to undertake such an air defence mission in remote sea territory, given its nine carrier battle groups and a preponderance of AWACS/ AEW and other radar assets.

One could well imagine the magnitude of the challenge by envisaging a hypothetical task for the Indian Armed Forces of setting up an air defence umbrella over, say, the A&N Islands located some 1300 km from India‘s Eastern sea board. At least one aircraft carrier (may be more than one to have one on station!); adequate AWACS support and enough numbers of long range Air Defence Interceptors would be called for to undertake such a task. China is not there yet in terms of Air Defence capability, especially over the sea. Therefore, the whole exercise appears to be one to score political points. China would not like to provoke US air forces over this matter. It would be content to fish in troubled waters between Japan and South Korea to see how their governments react. It is interesting that whilst the US, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea have negated the Chinese ADIZ norms partly or wholly, international air carriers such as Singapore Airlines have decided to toe the line and intimate the Chinese on their flights transiting the ECS ADIZ.

Whither the Dragon in the Sky?
Japan, South Korea and the US have flown their military aircraft through the Chinese ADIZ. Taiwan and South Korea have asked their civil airliners to file flight plans with the Chinese. Some renowned international airlines such as SAL are already complying with Chinese norms. But it needs to be remembered that the US is a big player in this region, what with its military relationship with Japan and close air force cooperation with the South Koreans (they take part in the Red Flag series of air exercises frequently). Clearly, the ADIZ declaration has the blessings of the Chinese upper echelons, but if given the choice, nobody would like to precipitate a crisis in the region, as the number of countries involved in the South China Sea/Spratly disputes could lead to an unforeseen escalation. So far, the ASEAN has not reacted formally to the ADIZ development, but the general feeling amongst analysts is that the Dragon is playing chicken - something akin to a person wishing to build a fence around a plot of land in a city that he does not belong to!  

Given the large overlap in the ADIZs of Japan and China, frequent interceptions by either side are a given. Besides, China’s Aircraft Identification Rules make no distinction between aircraft transiting through its ADIZ flying parallel to its coast line and those aircraft flying towards its airspace. Though the US chastised China for this anomaly during Secretary Kerry’s recent ‘demarche visit’, it has quietly directed its civil air carriers to honour the Chinese ADIZ stipulations. These signals could possibly tempt the Chinese military and leadership to miscalculate that any precipitate kinetic action by their forces against Japanese aircraft in disputed airspace would not attract any US reaction. But such a miscalculation may indeed serve to be the trigger for escalation, should some overzealous local commander be trigger-happy.  Likewise, the possibility of a maritime or aerial conflict exists between South Korea and China over the Jeju Islands housing the ROK-controlled submerged Ieodo Rock. Given these threat scenarios, the US is bound to be working towards some kind of a ‘save face’ for China so that yet another military strategic hot spot is diffused.