China's War on International Norms

December 12, 2013 Topic: Global CommonsGlobal Governance Region: ChinaNortheast AsiaAsia

China's War on International Norms

A destabilizing defense zone.

China’s declaration of a new air-defense identification zone (ADIZ) has further destabilized an already volatile situation. On November 23, China’s Ministry of National Defense unilaterally announced the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. According to the new rules for conduct in this ADIZ, any aircraft (commercial and non-commercial) flying into the ADIZ is expected to follow the instructions of the administrative organ of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone or the unit authorized by that organ. This means aircraft should submit their flight plans to Chinese authorities, maintain two-way radio communication, and keep radar transponders turned on. Should a plane refuse, China’s military has the right to adopt defensive measures, which is taken to mean scrambling aircraft to intercept the incoming aircraft.

ADIZs are, by themselves, not controversial. ADIZs are early-warning perimeters for self-defense, set by a state far beyond its territorial airspace in order to identify potential threats heading for its territorial airspace. Most states with ADIZs, like the US and Japan, request the submission of flight plans only for flights heading toward their territorial airspace. Other states, like China, request submission of flight plans for flights transiting the ADIZ even if there is no intention to enter territorial airspace. This element of China’s ADIZ is controversial because it is an attempt to exert greater control over a vast area of airspace. Yet, further problematic is the fact that the ADIZ overlaps considerably with the ADIZs of both Japan and Taiwan as well as South Korea’s. Importantly, included in the waters subsumed by China’s ADIZ are areas of land claimed by China but controlled by Japan-Senkaku Islands-and by South Korea-Ieodo Rock.

Perhaps because of the imposition of China’s ADIZ over such a wide portion of Japan’s ADIZ, most media coverage and scholarly analysis has focused on China’s ADIZ through the prism of China’s territorial dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands. The dominant narrative of why the ADIZ matters has therefore become Beijing attempting to weaken Japan’s claim by challenging Japan’s administration of the islands as well as the overlying airspace in order to force Japan to admit the existence of a dispute. While this logic may be accurate, it is incomplete. In fact, China’s ADIZ is a pronouncement of three challenges.

The first challenge is similar to the aforementioned dominant narrative, but more inclusive to include China’s eastern neighbors Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Because China’s ADIZ overlaps significantly with its three neighbor’s ADIZ, it is putting significant pressure on them. For both Tokyo and Seoul, Beijing may be attempting to weaken their claims by challenging their administration through a declaration of who can and cannot fly freely over these land formations and then trying to force them to recognize the existence of a dispute. Similarly, Beijing is reminding Taipei that Taiwan’s ADIZ is not recognized as separate from its own. In all three cases, Beijing is attempting to eat away at areas controlled by its neighbors. This is because the ADIZ can be used as justification for dispatching intercepts of aircraft entering China’s ADIZ. If any of its neighbors accept Beijing’s new rules, or simply give up their opposition, China can claim victory.

The second challenge by China is to the United States. It is widely known that the U.S. is rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region. Although it is widely misunderstood to be a military endeavor, the rebalance involves economic and diplomatic elements in addition to a military element. The purpose of announcing the U.S. rebalance was to reemphasize its commitment to the region. Despite the fact that U.S. administration officials have repeatedly stated that the rebalance involves deeper dialogue with China, the dominant interpretation of the rebalance by China is that it is an American effort to contain China’s rise. As such, the ADIZ is a reaction to the rebalance, challenging U.S. resolve in its renewed regional commitment. After all, the ADIZ is really a question about who will exercise influence over the region. China is challenging U.S. influence, attempting to push the U.S. farther away from its shores.

The final challenge issued by China’s ADIZ is to international norms. Although there is no document like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that delineates rights and obligations regarding ADIZ, Article II of UNCLOS clearly states that airspace sovereignty of coastal states extends as far as the territorial sea (which extends as far as 12 nautical miles). Based on this, there is an internationally accepted norm of freedom of overflight where most states with ADIZs expect submission of flight plans only for airplanes heading toward their territorial airspace. By telling airplanes to comply by its rules even if they have no intention on entering China’s territorial airspace, China is attempting to control airspace far from its shores, thereby limiting freedom of overflight in airspace above what is commonly treated as international waters. This is a tactic China last employed in 1998 when it adopted its Law on the Exclusive Economic Zone and the Continental Shelf, which represented China’s attempt to limit maritime activities in its EEZ by military vessels that differed from more widely held interpretations of UNCLOS. In essence, China is bucking international norms that guarantee freedom of movement in both the maritime and aerial realms. In so doing, it is revealing itself to be nothing more than a revisionist power suffering from a nineteenth century mindset that fixates on control of territory, or in this case, water and air.

China’s ADIZ declaration is destabilizing because it is a blatant, unilateral attempt to alter the regional status quo. Yet, it is not just a China-Japan issue. It is a challenge to all of China’s eastern neighbors, the United States, and international norms pertaining to freedom of overflight. Consequently, it promises to escalate an already-tense situation in the East China Sea. The result is an increased risk for miscalculation between Chinese airplanes and those of other countries, as well as diminished trust between China and its neighbors.

Jeffrey W. Hornung is an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu and an adjunct fellow with the Office of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are his alone.