TAIPEI, SEOUL AND TOKYO — China’s establishment of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) last week over the East China Sea has given the US an unexpected challenge as Vice President Joseph Biden prepares for a trip to China, Japan and South Korea beginning this week.
The trip was scheduled to address economic issues, but the Nov. 23 ADIZ announcement raised a troubling new issue for the US and allies in the region. China’s ADIZ overlaps the zones of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
Sources indicate China’s ADIZ could be part of its larger anti-access/area-denial strategy designed to force the US military to operate farther from China’s shorelines.
China might also be planning additional identification zones in the South China Sea and near contested areas along India’s border, US and local sources say.
China’s ADIZ might be an attempt by Beijing to improve its claim to disputed islands in the East China Sea also claimed by Japan, sources said. These islands — known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China — are under the administrative control of Japan.
Mike Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said this is part of a larger Chinese strategy beyond disputes over islands.
“This should be viewed as a part of a Chinese effort to assert greater denial capacity and eventual pre-eminence over the First Island Chain” off the coast, he said.
Green, who served on the US National Security Council from 2001 to 2005, said China’s Central Military Commission in 2008 “promulgated the ‘Near Sea Doctrine,’ and is following it to the letter, testing the US, Japan, Philippines and others to see how far they can push.”
June Teufel Dreyer, a veteran China watcher at the University of Miami, Fla., said “salami slicing” is a large part of China’s strategic policy. “The salami tactic has been stunningly successful, so incremental that it’s hard to decide what Japan, or any other country, should respond forcefully to. No clear ‘red line’ seems to have been established,” Dreyer said.
The Chinese refer to it as “ling chi” or “death from a thousand cuts.”
For example, China’s new ADIZ overlaps not only Japan’s zone to encompass disputed islands, but South Korea’s zone by 20 kilometers in width and 115 kilometers in length to cover the Socotra Rock (Ieodo or Parangdo). Socotra is under South Korean control but claimed by China as the Suyan Rock.
Seoul decided to expand its ADIZ after China refused to redraw its declared zone covering the islands. Seoul’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) and related government agencies are consulting on how to expand the South Korean ADIZ, drawn in 1951 by the US military, officials said.
“We’re considering ways of expanding [South] Korea’s air defense identification zone to include Ieodo,” said Wi Yong-seop, vice spokesman for the MND.
During annual high-level defense talks between Seoul and Beijing on Nov. 28, South Korean Vice Defense Minister Baek Seung-joo demanded that Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the General Staff of the Chinese Army, modify China’s ADIZ.
“We expressed regret over China’s air defense identification zone that overlaps our zone and even includes Ieodo,” Wi said after the bilateral meeting. “We made it clear that we can’t recognize China’s move and jurisdiction over Ieodo waters.”
Amid these growing tensions, South Korea’s arms procurement agency announced Nov. 27 it would push forward on procurement of four aerial refueling planes. Currently, South Korea’s F-15 fighter jets are limited to flying missions over Ieodo for 20 minutes. New tankers will extend that time to 80 minutes.
“With midair refueling, the operational range and flight hours of our fighter jets will be extended to a greater extent, and we will be able to respond to potential territorial disputes with neighboring countries,” a spokesman for South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration said.
In the southern part of China’s ADIZ, which overlaps Taiwan’s ADIZ, Beijing was careful not to cover Taiwan’s Pengjia Island, which is manned by a Taiwan Coast Guard unit.
“The exclusion of the Pengjia Islet indicates that mainland China respects our stance,” said Chinese Nationalist Party legislator Ting Shou-chung. Relations across the Taiwan Strait have been improving over the past several years.
“We’re all waiting for the other shoe to drop,” said Peter Dutton, an ADIZ expert and director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College.
“We’re looking to see how China will now behave,” he said. “Hopefully, they will not try to fly inside the airspace over the Senkaku Islands, since that is under Japanese sovereign administration and would therefore be a highly provocative act.”
Dutton downplayed fears of another civilian airliner being shot down, as was the case in 1983, when a Soviet Su-15 fighter shot down a South Korean airliner that strayed into Soviet airspace, killing 269.
In 1988, a US Navy Ticonderoga-class cruiser, the USS Vincennes, shot down Iran Air Flight 655 over the Arabian Gulf, killing 290. The Vincennes mistook the airliner for an Iranian F-14 Tomcat fighter jet.
“For civilian aircraft, this is really not a major issue,” he said. “Those aircraft almost always file flight plans in advance and follow the directions of ground controllers. This means that their route through the ADIZ would already by pre-approved, and this is not a problem for the Chinese.”
Dutton said the real concern is the freedom of military flights.
“But both the US and Japan have said they do not intend to alter their behavior or to abide by the ADIZ procedures, no matter what they are, for military flights,” he said.
In 2001, a Chinese J-8 fighter collided with a US Navy EP-3 Aries signals intelligence aircraft near Hainan Island. Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at CSIS, said she does not expect China to “back down” from its ADIZ policy, and anticipates more intercepts by Chinese fighters of US reconnaissance aircraft.
“The risk of accident will undoubtedly increase, especially [with] fighters [flown at] Mach 1 by young, inexperienced pilots,” she said.
Alessio Patalano, a lecturer in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, said the Chinese move might have been prompted by the current tensions in the East China Sea, and recent discussions in Japan about how the military can deal with Chinese drones and manned patrol aircraft that intrude into Japan’s air defense space.
“Chinese authorities are seeking to force Japan to accept the existence of the dispute challenging Japanese control of the islands,” Patalano said. “The problem with this is that Chinese authorities are using military and paramilitary tools to force a change of status quo to what is a political issue.
“Of course, a more robust response could see the US and Japan deploy air assets in the overlapping areas of the ADIZ to challenge the Chinese position,” Patalano said. “US and Japanese aircraft flying together in the Chinese ADIZ would present a serious dilemma to Chinese authority.”
Green said the US should at least send a “joint US-Japan patrol into the area to prove the point that coercion does not work.”
The announcement of the ADIZ also affects the Chinese military, likely adding to the Air Force’s status over the traditional role the Army has played as national defender.