On Monday, the State Department called on China to withdraw the rules it imposed when announcing its East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone. “The fact that China’s announcement has caused confusion and increased the risk of accidents only further underscores the validity of concerns and the need for China to rescind the procedures,” said spokeswoman Jen Psaki at the department’s daily press briefing.
Psaki’s statement — a little too diplomatic given the circumstances — was a first step in undoing the harm the State Department caused on Friday when it advised U.S. carriers to comply with Beijing’s demands for its new zone.
Beijing established the air zone on November 23 without consulting other countries in the region, and it’s not hard to see why. First, China’s new ADIZ — air zones are known by these initials — includes the sovereign airspace of both Japan and South Korea. Worse, Beijing claims Japanese and South Korean territory under the zone as a part of the People’s Republic. The establishment of the zone, therefore, has been seen as an attempt to wrest sovereignty from both Tokyo and Seoul.
Second, Beijing requires aircraft to file flight plans before entering its zone and remain in touch with Chinese authorities while in the zone even if such aircraft do not intend to enter China’s sovereign airspace. Other countries, like the United States, do not have such expansive requirements for their ADIZs.
China’s new zone was, therefore, an unprecedented act, arrogant, belligerent, and dangerous. The U.S. and others, therefore, have ignored Beijing’s rules. On the Tuesday following the announcement of the zone, the Pentagon sent two B-52s, taking off from Guam, to fly through China’s zone without complying with its rules. Since then, the U.S. has been making daily transits through the zone, and Japanese, South Korean, and Taiwanese military craft have been also making frequent flights there.
The State Department, when it advised American carriers to respect the zone, stated that its position “does not indicate U.S. government acceptance of China’s requirements for operating in the newly declared ADIZ.” That sounds fine as a technical legal matter, but the Chinese have used the compliance of American carriers to bolster the legitimacy of its zone. “The submission of flight plans to the competent Chinese authorities by airlines of relevant countries including the US shows their constructive attitude and cooperative will in upholding aviation order and security in the airspace above the East China Sea together with China,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei on Monday. “We appreciate that.”
Trust the State Department to walk into a Chinese-made trap, undoing the good work of the Pentagon. If there has been any consistent American foreign policy over the course of more than two centuries, it has been the defense of freedom of navigation. Having American planes submit to China’s expansive rules undercuts that long-held — and essential — policy.