China’s Air Defence Identification Zone: At Variance with the Principle of Adherence

This article was first published on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website in December 2013.


Vice Admiral (Retd.) Shankar

Keywords: Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), East China Sea, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), Rise of Chinese Hegemony, “Line of Actual Control”

An Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) is space over land or water within which identification, location, and routing of aircrafts are controlled. It is enforced by a state in the interest of security and safety. While ADIZs usually extend into what is universally acknowledged to be international airspace, even by the countries that maintain them, they in no way confer sovereignty. Its extent is determined by the reaction time to respond to foreign and possibly hostile aircrafts. The authority to establish an ADIZ is not given by any international treaty nor prohibited by international law and is not regulated by any international body. The first ADIZ was established by the United States soon after World War II. As surveillance technologies improved, the scramble for security reached a frenzied peak during the early stages of the Cold War when the fear of a sneak nuclear airborne first strike was a strategic fixation amongst protagonists. The extent of paranoia is exemplified by the American ADIZ off Southern California that stretches more than 400 nautical miles out to sea. Air defence zones should not be confused with information structures which are used to manage air traffic worldwide.

Several countries currently maintain ADIZs including Norway, Britain, USA, Canada, Japan, Pakistan, India, South Korea, Taiwan and China. Three conventional criteria preside over such zones, these are: the Zone cover undisputed territory, Zones do not apply to foreign aircraft not intending to enter territorial airspace, Zones do not overlap. Since states have the right to regulate air traffic only over their land, countries are not legally obliged to comply with another States ADIZ requirements in international airspace, but commercial traffic tend to do so because of the promise of security and safety.

So, on 23 November 2013, why did China establish its East China Sea ADIZ? Despite the knowledge that the central three criteria were breached, it covered the disputed Islands of Senkaku/Diaoyu; the Zone solicited information even if the foreign aircraft had no intentions of entering China’s territorial air space; and intriguingly, the new Zone intruded and overlapped the Japanese and Korean ADIZs. It also, cannot be coincidental that the inexact vesica piscis formed by the intersection of the Japan and China ADIZ along with the intersection of their disputed  Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) are centred on the Chunxiao gas fields (originally disputed but since 2008 overseen by a shaky joint development programme).

This discourse considers the three reasons that China’s establishment have fielded in vindication of their East China Sea ADIZ. First, the Surprise Attack Anxiety.  Surprise may be an essential feature of the “Principles of War”, and theoretical savvy suggest that the danger of a surprise attack is highest when one party to a conflict considers war inevitable and thinks that getting in the first blow would deliver a decisive military advantage; but, the reality is entirely in variance. For State initiated offensive military acts and follow up actions cannot today be masked, primarily because contemporary surveillance systems are designed to effectively discriminate hostile preparations and intrusions. Such technical measures are well known to China and appropriate devices are in place. ADIZs on the other hand are founded on the assumption of adherence and therefore in a state of war or military hostilities, it is inconceivable that one of the antagonists is going to adhere to the niceties of safety obligations. Tensions are undoubtedly high in the East China Sea region at the moment, but this is not Cold War. No country wants to target the heart of the global economy. The surprise attack formulation as articulated by China’s defence ministry is therefore on thin ice and has left China’s ADIZ more a question mark as to what their strategic intent is.

Second, the rationale that it is illicit trafficking of man, material and narcotics that is the object of the Zone is ludicrous since the region is neither a significant drug route nor is it a cognizable unlawful human trafficking corridor. Also the presence of multiple and overlapping maritime disputes and claims in area contributes to a surfeit of  zealous policing agencies which makes the trafficking theory implausible.

Third, the suggestion that the Zone was motivated by a desire to reduce the risk of midair collisions is hardly tenable since the most acute peril that airmen face is when there is duality of control without clear and unambiguous responsibility and power to regulate traffic. The underlying problem is not commercial air traffic, which is already under efficient regulation in the East China Sea, but the movement of military flights which have no obligation to abdicate control to the Zonal controller whilst in international airspace. Proclaiming the ADIZ and declaring the right to “emergency defensive measures”, it has put pressure on China to intercept foreign military flights increasing the risk of accidents. The move up an escalatory ladder jumped a few rungs when military aircraft from the US, Japan and South Korea challenged the ADIZ.

It is evident that China’s ADIZ neither qualifies the 3- conventional criteria test nor does their logic have any prospect of acceptance. It has, however roused a dangerous dilemma for there now exists a real possibility that a commercial plane in the area could receive conflicting instructions and face hazardous consequences. The Zone has also lowered the threshold for armed incidents. Which brings us back to our original question of why the Zone? History has repeatedly shown that the rise of a new hegemon is marked by resistance to the status-quo. China’s ADIZ in the East China Sea must be seen as a manifestation of its growing assertiveness. From the Indian perspective, planners must be prepared to confront similar proclamations over the Line of Actual Control particularly in the Arunachal sector. The riposte lies in defying any such unilateral decree.