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China’s Air Defense Identification Zone: The Korean Angle

by | November 27th, 2013 | 07:00 am
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China’s risky decision to announce an expansive Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) sparked a debate about how the US and Japan should respond. ADIZ’s have no standing in international law; they do not necessarily correspond with territorial or even Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claims. Nonetheless, they constitute a unilateral assertion of the power to identify, locate, and control aircraft in the name of national security; China’s announcement—linked above—is typical but nonetheless demanding. According to the Chinese announcement, aircraft passing through the ADIZ must provide prior notification of their nationality and flight plan and remain in periodic radio contact with the Chinese Defense Ministry. The implicit threat: that aircraft without authorization might be treated as intruders and even intercepted. No sooner had the ADIZ been announced than the government also announced the first “patrol” of the ADIZ, with early warning aircraft and fighters providing “support and cover” for two scout planes.

It didn’t take long for that debate to be resolved. In an absolutely correct response, the US did what it said it would do, namely to ignore the ADIZ annoucement by sending two B52s into the zone without prior permission from or contact with Chinese authorities.

As it turns out, the Chinese decision did not sit well in Korea either, and representatives of both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense contacted their Chinese counterparts to register “regrets” and concerns. A look at the released Chinese map suggests why. First, if it looks like the Chinese ADIZ butts up against South Korea’s territorial waters around Jeju because it does. China is claiming air control over a 20-by-115-kilometer rectangle of airspace that falls within South Korea’s ADIZ. Second, there is the question of Ieodo or the Socotra Rock. Ieodo sits about 5 meters under the surface, but South Korea has constructed the unmanned Ieodo Ocean Research Center on it and effectively exercises control. Ieodo is now squarely inside the Chinese ADIZ. Finally, there is the larger issue of the maritime demarcation line between South Korea and China. The two sides claim overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones and despite 14 meetings since 1996 no agreement has been reached on the issue; the June Park-Xi summit called for a resumption of the talks.

Unlike its response to Japan’s concerns, China was quick to play down any conflict with Seoul, including over Ieodo. But the tone of South Korean coverage—even on the left—was not very understanding (for example, Hankyoreh). One concern: China’s suggestion that they may declare other ADIZ’s, including in the West (Yellow) Sea. At least the South Koreans and Chinese are talking; the ADIZ question is likely to be added to the agenda of the third meeting of bilateral defense strategy talks taking place later in the week. But Beijing’s over-reaching is generating backlash not only in Tokyo and Washington but in Seoul as well.