China’s unilateral declaration of an “air defense identification zone” in the East China Sea is the most serious escalation of its territorial dispute with Japan since the large-scale mob attacks on Japanese property in China just over a year ago.
China’s Ministry of National Defense has declared that as of two days ago new rules govern the entry of aircraft into the vast zone that encompasses the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, with all over-flights now requiring prior notification.
To back up this measure, the PLA Air Force has begun enforcement patrols.
Both Japan and the United States have condemned what they call Beijing’s “destabilizing” move and indicated they would not recognize the restrictions.
China says that aircraft flying into the “air defense identification zone” should report their flight plans to its government agencies and respond in a “timely and accurate manner” to identification inquiries. “China’s armed forces will adopt defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate in the identification or refuse to follow the instructions,” it added.
In September last year there were nationwide protests in China against Japan’s decision to nationalize several of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, off Taiwan, over which both it and China (and Taiwan) claim sovereignty. Since then Chinese and Japanese patrol boats have been shadowing each other in the disputed area, known to contain undersea oil and gas reserves.
As recently as a week ago Japanese government officials were reported as saying they had begun to see signs of improvement in the severely strained Sino-Japanese relations. That assessment now seems premature. China’s latest move makes clear that it will not allow the dispute to slip back into the background where it had sat for decades, until last year.
In stating Japan’s opposition to the “identification zone”, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida did not say whether the country would take direct counter-measures. Tokyo has mostly tried to contain the dispute but is being hemmed in by Beijing’s every new assertion of control.
Japanese Defense Ministry analysts have been concerned for some time about the aerial dimension of the territorial dispute. On regular occasions Japanese military aircraft are being scrambled to intercept Chinese patrol planes flying near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Though no exchanges of fire have occurred, it is thought to be a more dangerous theatre of confrontation than the standoff on the water. China’s declaration of its “air defense identification zone”, in the first instance, may be intended to establish a more formal basis for resisting these Japanese Air Self-Defense Force operations.
The official Xinhua news agency quotes “military experts” as saying the zone “accords with international common practices…if the move does not violate international laws, breach other countries’ territorial sovereignty or affect the freedom of flight”. Even this predictably supportive commentary suggests that disputed sovereignty and curtailment of freedom of the air would constitute valid grounds for objection.
The Japanese and US military must now calculate the risks of testing China’s resolve to enforce its East China Sea “identification zone”. The recent relative calm in this strategic flashpoint may now be over.
Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for eleven years for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He is the author of “Children of the Occupation: Japan’s Untold Story” (NewSouth Books).