Chinese Power Play

China’s establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over most of the East China Sea on November 23 erases any doubt about the international community and the U.S.’s long-standing efforts to persuade China to become a “stakeholder” in the international order.  These efforts have failed at a major juncture of what constitutes international order: the right of innocent passage through international waters and airspace.

China has been contesting territorial claims of various of its neighbors in the South and East China Seas for years now -- with Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan, to name a few.  But China’s newly declared ADIZ should not be confused with an attempt to increase security.  It is, rather, a power play aimed at establishing the subordination of neighboring states, extending China’s territorial reach in other disputed areas, and the narrowing of legitimate South Korean and Japanese Air Defense Identification Zones which are now intersected by China’s, and about which no previous dispute existed.

The contest with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, located in the East China Sea, is a proximate cause of China’s most recent action.  The newly announced Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone is a polygonal shape that extends eastwards from a point north of Shanghai deep into the East China Sea and parallels the Chinese coast at a distance of about 400 miles closing back toward the mainland just north of Taiwan.  China will require aircraft that pass through this zone to identify themselves or face what government spokesman Qin Gang said was “an appropriate response according to the different circumstances and the threat level that it might face.”  This is a not-so-veiled warning that China may use military force to assert its claim.  The Chinese have no legal basis to make this demand of aircraft that transit international waters.  It is as though the U.S. were to extend the limit of North American airspace by several hundred miles and demand that aircraft -- including commercial aviation -- that pass through it identify themselves or risk being forced to land, or more dire consequences.

The implication for China’s claim of sovereignty over the international waters of the South and East China Seas is plain enough.  If allowed to stand, Beijing will have advanced the objective of resolving in its favor territorial disputes with its neighbors as it succeeds in changing the heretofore accepted international definition of a sovereign state’s waters, that is -- for most security purposes -- 12 miles distant from its coast’s low-water line, and 24 miles for purposes of customs, immigration, and sanitary laws and regulations.  The Senkaku Islands are about 350 kilometers east of China’s coast.