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.
Tokyo has muscled Japanese carriers to not comply with China’s rules, and nothing has happened to their planes. Nonetheless, no one would think of endangering American civilian craft by forcing them not to honor China’s rules. What the State Department should have done, therefore, is to advise carriers to avoid the zone altogether — or even ordered them to do so.
Staying out of China’s ADIZ is the safe thing to do. For more than a decade, China’s air force has been engaged in dangerous flying, getting too close to planes of other countries. There was the Hainan incident in 2001, when a reckless Chinese pilot clipped the wing of an unarmed Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane, sending China’s jet into the water and forcing the American plane to make a landing. And despite the uproar then, the situation has not improved. Vice President Biden, during a visit to Beijing in 2011, showed Chinese leaders photographs of their aircraft coming within 10 feet of American planes in international airspace.
The State Department’s tepid language is not only insufficient but also counterproductive. The Chinese in recent years have not been responding to our friendly gestures. They see them as signs of weakness and try to press their advantage. Bad things happen when your adversary does not respect you.
China’s new ADIZ, now contested airspace, is no place for American carriers. North Asia is getting dangerous. There are historic animosities going back centuries, countries are rapidly building up their militaries, political leaders emotionally want to fight, and military officers have not been tempered by the horror of combat.
On Friday, the Chinese Ministry of Defense said it scrambled jets in response to American and Japanese aircraft transiting China’s ADIZ. Planes of competing nations are now maneuvering in the same airspace at the same time, and the Chinese are seeking to create a confrontation. The last thing the State Department should have done is encourage American carriers to enter such contested airspace.