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All ado about ADIZ

By Philip Coggan - posted Wednesday, 11 December 2013

What's with China and the Daioyu/Senkaku islands ADIZ? Over at The Interpreter, Sam Rogeveen has proposed a thought experiment. Suppose, he says, that China had a naval base in Cuba. Suppose also that it had an alliance with Canada that allowed it to station a hundred thousand troops there. Suppose China were conducting near-constant surveillance flights and naval patrols off California. And suppose this was happening at a moment when the US was just emerging as an economic giant wishing to take its place in the world. Not, says Rogeveen, that this should make us feel any sympathy for China, but it should give some insight into Beijing's collective frame of mind.

While we're asking questions, just what is an ADIZ, anyway? Wikipedia explains: an Air Defense Identification Zone "is airspace over land or water in which the identification, location, and control of civil aircraft is required in the interest of national security." Not many countries have them - the US does, Australia does not.

Why does China think it needs this particular ADIZ? Presumably because it has concerns about its security. Or possibly to force the Japanese to admit that a dispute over the ownership of the islands actually exists (Tokyo never has, at an official level). Or possibly it's to establish "facts in the air", says Zachary Keck at The Diplomat.


Keck also outlines China's rules for the ADIZ. Rule #1 is that aircraft must follow the rules. "Defensive emergency measures" can be taken against offenders, leading Time magazine's Hannah Beech to worry that "there is little clarity on exactly what the Chinese air force might do, leading to worries that a minor miscalculation in the ADIZ could spark a larger conflict." China says that the ADIZ is "in line with international law and practice," but in fact ADIZs aren't governed by international law, as there are no international treaties relating to them. The Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People's Congress presumably means that it's doing no more than the US and others do.

China says that its ADIZ is "reasonable and legitimate." Japan says China must rescind the Zone, which partly overlaps a Japanese ADIZ. China refuses, and says it doesn't recognise the Japanese ADIZ. The US supports Japan, but not all the way: Vice President Joe Biden, while expressing himself "deeply concerned," has also urged Tokyo and Beijing to put "effective channels of communication" in place to lessen the risk of accidents.

As this suggests, the risk is of accidents, not war. Nevertheless, the dynamics are disturbing. China's declaration of the ADIZ is driven at least in part by a strong current of nationalism, shared by both the elite and ordinary Chinese: Japan's reaction is also in part nationalistic, no matter how strong Japan's legal claims to the islands are. Nationalism is emotional and irrational, and liable to take over the discourse if not controlled. We are not at Europe 1914, and an armed clash between Japan and China seems unlikely, but every effort needs to be made to reduce tensions.

And Australia? In October, Tony Abbott declared Japan to be Australia's "best friend in Asia." The time has come, he said, for Japan to be a "normal country" operating under the same rules as other nations - diplomatic code for a revision of Japan's "peace" constitution, a cause close to the heart of prime minister Abe but highly controversial even in Japan, let alone with China.

In November, when the ADIZ was declared, Julie Bishop joining Japan, the US, the EU and South Korea in calling in the Chinese ambassador to express concern that the zone increased regional tensions. This earned a humiliating personal and public rebuke when Bishop visited Beijing soon afterwards. Speaking to reporters afterwards, she said she did not believe that relations between Beijing and Canberra would be adversely effected, and that negotiations on a highly-touted bilateral free trade deal had been "productive."

The ADIZ remains in force, the potential for accidents continues, and Australia continues to face (or not face) the looming contradiction between the fact that its main strategic partner and its main trading partner are on opposite sides of the fence.

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About the Author

Philip Coggan has been a diplomat and subsequently a journalist based in Southeast Asia. He has been a full-time writer since 2006 and is about to bring out his first novel, a comic crime-mystery set in Phnom Penh. He blogs at Philip Coggan's Blog.

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