China on Saturday said it had set up an air defence zone covering the international airspace over parts of the disputed East China Sea, requiring all non-commercial aircraft to notify its authorities of their flight plans to avoid triggering a response from air defence forces.
Japan lodged “a serious protest” in response to the move, describing it as “an extremely dangerous” step that could result in “unpredictable events.”
The Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea may be followed by the establishment of similar zones covering China’s other frontiers, the Defence Ministry said, with zones to be set up to boost China’s territorial defences “at an appropriate time after completing preparations.”
The ADIZ is a predefined area over international airspace within which the Chinese military will monitor and track aircraft. Many countries, from India to the U.S. and Japan, monitor similar zones beyond their immediate territorial airspaces to track aircraft for security purposes.
While the Chinese government said international flights will not be affected, any other non-commercial flights that have not notified authorities of their flight plans will likely face interception, and could also be brought down.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force said it conducted a first air patrol over the ADIZ shortly after the Saturday morning announcement. The zone extends into international airspace east of China’s territorial airspace into the East China Sea, and up to 130 km from Japan’s territorial airspace.
The Chinese ADIZ overlaps with the ADIZ that Japan has already established in the region, with both zones covering the disputed Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
While Chinese officials explained the move as aimed at defending China’s airspace and boosting early warning systems, the Japanese government said it was “extremely dangerous as it may lead to miscalculation in the area.”
The move is likely to fuel tensions with Japan, coming at a time when both countries have sparred over the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. In recent months, both countries have dispatched patrol boats to enforce their claims, while Japan has also scrambled fighter jets after Chinese Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) entered the airspace above the islands and threatened recently to shoot them down.
M. Taylor Fravel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is an expert on China’s relations with its neighbours, told The Hindu that the rules of engagement that will be established will determine the impact of the move.
“An ADIZ is a air traffic control zone in international airspace, not national airspace,” he said. “So, whether it will increase conflict depends on what rules of engagement for intercepting planes that approach the zone without pre-notification. It is probably a response to Japan’s position that it would shoot down UAVs over the territorial airspace of the Senkakus.”
Japan lodges protest
The Japanese government said in a statement it lodged a “serious protest,” with Junichi Ihara, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanic Affairs Bureau, conveying the government’s protest over the telephone with Han Zhiqiang, Minister at the Chinese Embassy in Japan.
The Chinese Defence Ministry spokesperson Yang Yujun defended the move, saying it followed international practices. “Since the 1950s, over 20 countries, including some big powers and China’s neighbouring countries, have set up air defence identification zones,” he told the official Xinhua news agency.
“Moreover,” he added, in an apparent reference to Japan, “a relevant country established its air defence identification zone as early as 1969, which is also about 130 km from the Chinese mainland at its closest distance.”