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China Has a New Air Defense Zone and Washington Couldn't Care Less

The United States challenged China's recently announced Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) on Monday night, flying two unarmed B-52 bombers on a scheduled training sortie into airspace which China on Saturday declared subject to new defensive measures. Despite Beijing's blustery announcementthat any aircraft flying over a large swatch of the East China Sea would have to identify themselves and coordinate their flights with Chinese air traffic controllers, Chinese naval and air forces in the area did nothing to intercept the flight.

Washington said the flights had been scheduled weeks ago and that the timing was coincidental.  Of course, scheduled flights can always be delayed, and it's striking that  wasn't done here. 

To eliminate any confusion, this is what's known in technical terms as Washington deciding to flip the bird at Beijing.

The entire episode -- both Beijing's decision to erect the ADIZ and Washington's decision to immediately flout it -- raises an important question: Just what exactly is an ADIZ?

The policy, as it was laid out by the Chinese Ministry of Defense, is simple:

  • All aircraft entering the ADIZ must report their flight plans to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Civil Aviation Administration.
  • All aircraft in the ADIZ must maintain radio contact with Chinese authorities.
  • All aircraft in the ADIZ must comply with instructions from Chinese authorities.

"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," the Defense Ministry warned. But the ADIZ is not a ban on flying through certain airspace -- in other words, it's definitely not a no-fly zone. Rather, it's a check-in-and-let-us-know-you're-coming zone.

China's new ADIZ isn't unique, either. The United States also has an ADIZ that extends 20 to 30 miles into the sea along its borders. Japan stoked its territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea earlier this year when in June it adjusted its own ADIZ around Yonaguni Island, pushing it into airspace that Taiwan claims as its own. In October, Japan floated new procedures to shoot down Chinese drones operating in what Tokyo claims is Japanese airspace.

The real controversy is the extent of China's ADIZ, not that it has one in the first place. The map China released on Nov. 23 asserts control over almost all of the East China Sea, including the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and sweeping northeast toward the southern tip of Japan's Kyushu Island and the Korean peninsula. That's prompted concerns that China is using its ADIZ to try to edge out its rivals in the East China Sea -- closing the area to certain Japanese, Korean, and U.S. flights.

But to do that, China would have to enforce its approximately California-sized claim to airspace in the East China Sea -- which it declined to do when two American B-52s flew through yesterday.

Tech Sgt. Dennis Henry/DVIDS Map: Chinese Ministry of Defence via Xinhua

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