China’s announcement of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone effectively took hostage the world’s multibillion-dollar airline industry.
An airline’s first responsibility is the safety of its passengers, and it is little wonder that the initial response of many airlines was to agree to China’s demand that they provide information, including their flight plan, if they enter the zone.
Even though the Chinese foreign ministry insisted that the ADIZ does not target “normal” flights by international airlines, it still demanded that all planes that enter the zone must not only provide their flight plan but also report their nationality and keep their transponder identification on at all times while maintaining two-way radio communications.
Any aircraft failing to carry out these instructions would face unspecified “emergency measures” carried out by the Chinese armed forces.
The establishment of the ADIZ was quite transparently aimed at Japan since it covers the airspace over the islands in dispute between the two countries, known as the Diaoyu Islands to China and the Senkaku Islands to Japan.
It comes after other moves to undermine Japan’s claim, such as sending Chinese patrol boats into the surrounding waters and planes into the air above them, after the Japanese government last year purchased some of the islands from their private Japanese owner.
The reaction to the latest Chinese move was defiance on the part of Japan, South Korea and the United States, and unhappiness on the part of other governments, such as that of Australia and Taiwan. Washington sent two B-52 bombers into the zone without notifying China, drawing a muted response from the Chinese, who said they had successfully identified and monitored the planes.
Japan and South Korea, too, sent military planes into China’s air defense zone, without encountering any opposition. The new Chinese ADIZ overlaps those of existing zones set up by Japan and South Korea.
Taiwan, which also claims the disputed islands, issued a statement dissociating itself from the new ADIZ and urging all parties to “observe international law” and to resolve disputes in a peaceful manner.
China has dropped hints that it may set up similar zones in other areas, such as the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea. One key objective could well be to keep American surveillance aircraft away from the Chinese coast.
While foreign militaries may be willing to defy China and accept whatever consequences there may be, the same is obviously not true of civilian airliners, which have to worry about the safety of their passengers as well as possible financial repercussions.
Some carriers, such as Singapore Airlines and Australia’s Qantas, said early on that they would abide by the new rules.
Even Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines responded initially to China’s declaration by accepting the new regulations. However, they reversed their position following a request from the Japanese government and stopped filing flight plans with China.
The US was clearly in a quandary. At a State Department press briefing just before Thanksgiving, a spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said “US air carriers are being advised to take all steps they consider necessary to operate safely in the East China Sea region” and that “the safety of airplanes is key”.
That certainly sounded like American airlines were being advised to comply with the Chinese regulations, even if the US government objected to them.
However, when asked if American carriers should file their flight plans with the Chinese authorities, Psaki responded, “I wouldn’t go that far.”
By Friday, however, the Obama administration relented and evidently decided that it did not want to risk the lives of passengers. The State Department issued a statement saying: “The US government generally expects that US carriers operating internationally will operate consistent with” notice requirements “issued by foreign countries” even though that “does not indicate US government acceptance of China’s requirements.”
Although the government itself remained defiant, the safety of passengers evidently had to come first.
China, of course, did not threaten to shoot down uncooperative airliners. But there was a veiled threat that something unpleasant might happen if China decided to take “emergency measures”.
The position of Japan in effect is to dare China to do something about it. Would China shoot down a passenger plane and accept the ignominy that would accompany such an act? Unlikely.
While governments generally speaking cannot risk the lives of civilian passengers and so must perforce advice airline companies to comply with the Chinese demands, they also don’t like being blackmailed. China is paying a steep price in terms of goodwill in its relations with much of the world.
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