22 September 2018
China's new air defense zone over the East China Sea has angered Japan and the US. Photo: Reuters
China's new air defense zone over the East China Sea has angered Japan and the US. Photo: Reuters

Can China back up its new ‘no-fly’ zone with force?

China said Saturday that non-commercial aircraft entering a broad zone over the East China Sea must first identify themselves to Beijing, or face the risk of “defensive emergency measures” by Chinese armed forces.

For a country with a largely unproven air force, the establishment of this “air defense identification zone” (ADIZ) is brazen. Maps published over the weekend show the zone covers most of the East China Sea, including airspace over a group of uninhabited islets already claimed by Japan.

While China did not specifically define “defensive emergency measures”, the message suggests that the country could scramble fighters to intercept and shoot down any aircraft it deems as a threat.

Whether China really has the means or even the skill to back-up its menacing declaration with force, however, is up for debate.

China has the largest air force in Asia and could soon have the largest tactical fighter force in the world, but Chinese pilots have little air-to-air combat experience.

The last time the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) participated in an air war was in the 1950s.

In some circles, China’s air force is considered “lousy”. There are also questions about China’s radar capability, which experts say lack sufficient sophistication to track fighter planes flying at low altitudes.

The overlapping zones over the disputed Daioyu/Senkaku islands and the relatively unknown degree of China’s combat readiness could make for an accident waiting to happen.

The United States, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan were all quick to respond to China’s provocative announcement.

Washington warned that the latest Chinese move creates the risk of potentially dangerous miscalculations in the sensitive region, where Chinese and Japanese ships and planes have already been involved in tense encounters, wrote CNN.

“This unilateral action constitutes an attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea. Escalatory action will only increase tensions in the region and create risks of an incident,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said.

Japan said it will ignore the Chinese demand, which Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida called a “one sided action” that “cannot be allowed”.

“Irrational actions in the ADIZ could lead to conflict,” Wang Jinling, a former Chinese military officer who now heads San Lue, an independent think-tank on security affairs in Beijing, told the Christian Science Monitor. “Real clashes are possible.”

China dismissed US comments as unjustified interference.

American criticism of the air zone announcement is “completely unreasonable”, Col. Yang Yujun, a Ministry of National Defense spokesman, said Sunday.

The United States should stop taking sides on the issue, cease making “inappropriate remarks” and not send any more “wrong signals” that could lead to a “risky move by Japan”, he said.

Yang also said that Japan’s remarks on the ADIZ were “absolutely groundless and unacceptable”.

In China, where Japan’s wartime actions are kept alive in TV series, films and government propaganda, the new zone quickly won approval from Chinese nationalists, some of whom flocked to online sites such as the militant Iron and Blood forum to demand “merciless” treatment of the Japanese, USA Today reported.

On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, lawyer Wu Yu, based in the eastern city of Nanjing, demanded the shooting down of all unauthorized planes in Diaoyu airspace.

The zone “is the best news I have seen in my life, China has finally made a move on the Diaoyu Islands,” he wrote. “I hope it can live up to its word and will not disappoint the people once again.”

For people with a less insane perspective, Foreign Policy notes that “the area China has created isn’t so much a no-fly zone as it is a yellow flag area.” Many countries, including the United States, have the same kind of zone around their borders.

Analysts predict that the US will soon “test” China’s resolve and assert its global authority.

“I would expect within the very near future, that [the United States] will fly through that ADIZ just to demonstrate that we reserve the right to do so,” said Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Despite Beijing’s saber-rattling, most experts think China would choose to ignore any US aircraft in the region, or it might respond by scrambling fighter jets to escort them through the zone.

As far as any Japanese fighters that might fly through the ADIZ, on purpose or otherwise, I think they’re in more danger of a mid-air collision than 23 mm cannon fire or a PL-9 air-to-air missile.


A strategist and marketing consultant on China business

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