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China’s Air Defence Identification Zone

The Chinese are certainly getting cocky in the cockpit, though they are doing so with occasional moments of refrain.  Beijing claimed on Thursday that there was “no question” of an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) being established near the Indian-Chinese border.  The argument is, as with such belligerent moves, a mixture of fact and fiction.  For Beijing, the claim has been made that such zones are set up by littoral countries in international airspace (Hindu, Nov 29).  No need to fret, then.

The undergraduate logistics of an ADIZ was explained by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang. “I want to clarify that on the concept of an ADIZ, it is an area of airspace established by a coastal state beyond its territorial airspace.” India has little reason to be concerned.

The fretting had, in fact, already been several days old.  It had everything to do with China’s East Asian neighbours, and that great cyclopean power, the United States.  On Saturday, an announcement was made about the creation of China’s first ADIZ covering areas around the disputed East China Sea islands, otherwise known as the Senkaku or Diaoyu islets.

Central here is the rather nasty bickering taking place between Japan and China over control over those tiny territories.  Chinese officials do not shy away from the fact that Japan set up its own ADIZ in 1969.  The suggestion there is that China is still in swaddling clothes when it comes to the business of imposing such zones.

U.S. Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel called the move “a destabilising attempt to alter the status quo in the region”.  Such a “unilateral act” had the prospects of increasing “the risk of misunderstandings and miscalculations.”  Little Australia decided to chime in, claiming some role in dictating to Beijing whether it should, or should not be engaging in such acts.  Canberra went so far as to actually summon the Chinese ambassador to discuss concerns over the new policy. According to its foreign minister, Julie Bishop, the “timing and manner” of China’s new policy was “unhelpful in light of current regional tensions.”

One fear here is that such zones have a habit of crowding and crossing over with others.  In that sense, the Chinese official classes are correct: some countries just have a general habit of imposing them, and Beijing wants to join the stampede.  The Chinese Foreign Ministry has been doing its homework, though the issue as to what the airforce and military do in its stead remains pressing.  When the warnings are made, the unsheathing of the sword can be expected.  And a combatant with an unsheathed sword with nowhere to go is an embarrassing sight indeed.

That it has taken crawling steps into a new realm of strategy, or at the very least, the fictional guise of exerting force over various areas of control, suggests that Beijing wants its place in the sun. In itself, the ADIZ does nothing more than impose a regulatory framework over air traffic at the behest of the noisy dictating power.  The Chinese defence ministry suggested that aircraft had to report a flight plan, “maintain two-war radio communications”, and “respond in a timely and accurate manner” to queries on identification (BBC, Nov 26).  Failure to do so would result in a shower of rhetoric and threats about various “consequences”.

This is the voyeuristic bully boy in action, and Beijing is far from the first.  The chattering classes are wondering whether this will, in fact, pose any significant change.  The demagogues in favour of Beijing see this as a justifiable and strident assertion of power in the face of rivals.  The other side of the coin is that such boisterous behaviour is misplaced unless the fangs show.  Then there are those who wish to see a non-militaristic China, China as a rapacious consumer economy more interested in the buck than the bang.

The response from Washington was certainly immediate, testing the limits of what the ADIZ actually meant.  Two unaccompanied B-52 bombers went on what was termed a “routine” flight, and similarly routine flights were flown by South Korean and Japanese civilian carriers, including Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines, without advance filing of path routes.

U.S. Colonel Steve Warren at the Pentagon announced that, “We have continued to follow our normal procedures, which include not filing flight plans, not radioing ahead and not registering our frequencies.” To every bully, and even bigger bully can be found, strutting down to the challenge.

Such a zone is a nonsense on rather unreliable stilts, a mirage at international law without the motivating force to back it.  For that reason, it is dangerous for firstly undermining the credibility of Beijing’s policy on the one hand, while giving force to the unpredictability about what it might do when pushed further.  This in itself is not an argument against having one – it is axiomatic that the existence of such zones will invariably lead to their adoption in other contexts.  Much of the fury at China, in that sense, is misdirected, most notably from Washington’s imperial emissaries.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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