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China's Sea Air Defence Identification Zone is justified
Publication Date : 29-11-2013
China's establishment of the East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone and the announcement of aircraft identification rules for the zone have received a mixed response over the past few days. Although the majority of foreign airlines and civil aviation officials from other countries have said they will abide by the rules, some countries that have had a head start in establishing their own air defence identification zones are being the pot that calls the kettle black.
Not content with thinly disguising itself as an onlooker in East Asian issues, Washington has gone from badmouthing China to deliberately challenging the rules by sending a pair of B-52 bombers into China's newly established identification zone without informing China of the flight.
Aircraft from the Republic of Korea and Japan followed suit on Thursday. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even said that China's move is a dangerous act that might invite an "unexpected situation" and urged China to scrap its plan.
When setting up their air defence identification zones decades ago, and after many of their allies established theirs, Washington and Tokyo did not voice the concerns they have today. In what way can they justify their zones while criticising China for establishing its first air defence identification zone? Obviously, the United States is applying its double standards well beyond the anti-terrorism arena, and Tokyo as its ally is following on its heels.
In stark contrast to the accusations from Washington and Tokyo, China's establishment of an air defence identification zone can ensure the transparency of flights and maintain flight order in the zone and prevent misunderstandings and miscalculations. It is unfair to blame China for adopting an internationally common practice.
An air defence identification zone, as an area of airspace established by a coastal state beyond its territorial airspace, is designated to identify and monitor aircraft that enter the zone. Such zones, simply put, are part of a country's security early warning system, which was initiated by the US and Canada in the 1950s amid the East-West military confrontation.
Air defence identification zones now surround much of North America, and more than 20 countries and regions, including Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, have established such zones. Rules for the zones vary from country to country, but all have the same defensive nature.
Although countries retain the right to identify and monitor foreign aircraft entering their air defence identification zones, they do not deny aircraft entry, they will only intercept and eject aircraft that violate their rules or pose a security threat.
The air defence identification zones of other countries were established in the name of safeguarding national security and are defensive in nature. But when China establishes its first air defence identification zone, it suddenly becomes "unnecessarily inflammatory", "destabilising" and "dangerous" and invites an "unexpected situation" in the eyes of some. The abrupt change fits into the pattern of Washington's double standards and Tokyo is only too happy to dance to Washington's tune.
Although international laws have neither clear stipulations nor prohibitions about air defence identification zones, in theory, the establishment of such a zone is in line with the principles and spirit of international laws, and most countries accept or acquiesce in them. Article 51 of the United Nations Charter recognises a country's inherent right of self-defence against an armed attack. The Convention on International Civil Aviation recognises that every state has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory. Based on that, the country is entitled to defend its territorial airspace from foreign intrusion.
Defending territorial airspace, however, should not be limited to imposing restrictions on entry. The moderate extension of early warning and precautionary capabilities, beyond the territorial airspace can greatly improve a country's response to any threat. Besides, beyond a coastal country's territorial sea are the contiguous zone and exclusive economic zone, and these areas are not equal to open seas where there is unrestricted access. Likewise, a coastal country should have the right to monitor the space adjacent to and beyond the outer edge of its territorial airspace.
Such a right is not exclusive to just a few countries and regions. China has the same right as any other country to establish an air defence identification zone. This is particularly important in the context of rapid progress in military technologies and weaponry across the world. The security landscape facing China and beyond is undergoing profound changes, and China is definitely not the only one with growing security concerns. Its southeastern region, for instance, is one of the country's most developed areas, and the airspace above comprises the country's key strategic pathway. Without an air defence identification zone over the East China Sea this region would be vulnerable to security risks via the airspace over Shanghai and neighbouring coastal regions. Like the previously established air defence identification zones of other countries, China's was established for defence and is not directed against any specific country or target.
Undeniably, China's air defence identification zone over part of the East China Sea overlaps that of Japan, and that is what makes it all the more important for both sides to face squarely the question of how to avoid potential conflicts and collisions in their respective monitoring operations.
It should be noted that although an air defence identification zone extends beyond a country's territorial airspace, it should not intrude upon the territorial airspace of other countries.
Japan included the Diaoyu Islands when it established its air defence identification zone 44 years ago. The inclusion of the Diaoyu Islands in China's air defence identification zone should have prompted Tokyo to reflect upon its mistake. However, instead of doing so, Tokyo is urging Beijing to withdraw its plan and playing the alarmist. That should sound the true alarm about regional stability.
The author is a Beijing-based military and legal expert.