Row over China’s bigger air zone keeps escalating

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Row over China’s bigger air zone keeps escalating

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Tensions continue to rise between China and its closest neighbors - Japan and Korea - as well as with the United States after Beijing’s unilateral declaration to expand its East China Sea air defense identification zone nine days ago.

A defense source said over the weekend that the ruling Saenuri Party, Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry have agreed the defense minister should spearhead a plan to expand Korea’s air defense identification zone as a response.

The defense official said Saturday there are three or four items in discussion including the inclusion of regions also claimed by China and Japan in the zone in the Yellow Sea and East China Sea region, such as Ieodo, Mara Island and Hong Island.

Lee Jung-hyun, senior presidential secretary for public affairs, told reporters that a national security policy meeting led by Kim Jang-soo, chief of the Blue House National Security Office, was held yesterday and the officials discussed a plan to expand Korea’s air defense identification zone.

Air defense identification zones, known by their initials ADIZ, are unilaterally set by countries and aren’t subject to international treaties or agreements. They are also larger than traditional national air spaces. Some countries require aircraft that enter the zones to provide identification and flight plans, but usually only if they are headed to a destination in that country, not if they’re just passing through.

The United States said Friday that its carriers have been advised to notify Chinese authorities of flight plans, including airlines such as Delta, American and United.

The U.S. Department of State in a statement Friday said the government “generally expects that U.S. carriers operating internationally will operate consistent with” notification policies issued by foreign countries.

However, Washington officials emphasized that this was not a “government acceptance” of China’s expanded ADIZ.

Other major Asian commercial airlines such as Korean Air and Singapore Airlines confirmed last week that they will comply with China’s flight plan notification requirement.

Japan’s two top airlines, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways, said last Tuesday they are complying with instructions from the Japanese government and not notifying Chinese authorities.

Confusingly, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said in an NHK interview Sunday that he believes Washington “is taking the same stance as Japan” in regards to Beijing’s demands.

China unilaterally announced its expanded ADIZ on Nov. 23 and it overlaps with disputed islands in the East China Sea, called the Senkaku by Tokyo and the Diaoyu by Beijing. It also overlaps with the waters around Ieodo, claimed both by Beijing and Seoul, and also known as Socotra Rock. Ieodo is a group of underwater reefs located 149 kilometers (92 miles) southwest of Korea’s southernmost Mara Island in the East China Sea.

China’s Air Force spokesman Shen Jinke said Friday that it scrambled advanced fighters jets, including SU-30 and J-11 fighters, after it identified two U.S. surveillance planes and 10 Japanese aircraft flying through its newly established zone.

Chinese officials said the Japanese planes included an F-15 jet and a reconnaissance aircraft.

The tension over China’s zone has raised fears of military accidents or clashes. In 2001, a U.S. surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet in international airspace over the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot was killed in the accident, and the U.S. plane made an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island, where it and its crew were held for 10 days, leading to damaged diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Korea’s air defense identification zone was breached by Beijing twice each year between 2006 to 2009, and the number jumped to six times in 2010 and 11 in 2012, according to the JoongAng Sunday. Korea’s air defense zone was breached a total of 30 times last year - the other 17 times by Russia and two times by Japan. This is compared to a total of six breaches of its air defense zone in 2006.

World Air Forces 2013 puts China’s active military aircraft fleet at 1,455, second in the world, following by the United States at 2,851. Beijing has been investing in expanding its air defense, and introduced the Shenyang J-31 fighter in October, comparable to the cutting-edge F-22 fighter jet owned by the United States. The U.S. and Japanese air forces have 72 F-22s, while China has none.

As military tensions escalate in the region, the Korean Navy said it is in the process of doubling the number of Aegis destroyers to six, according to a military official yesterday.

Korea currently has three 7,600-ton warships - Sejong the Great, the Seoae Ryu Seong-ryong and the Yulgok Yi I.

Once the six Aegis destroyers are completed, they can comprise a strategic fleet to patrol the waters around Dokdo and Ieodo, according to military officials. If the plan is approved, the three additional warships, estimated to cost 3 trillion won ($2.83 billion), are expected to be delivered between 2022 and 2028.

To challenge China’s air zone, the United States sent two unarmed B-52 bombers from Guam to fly around the zone Monday without prior notification, Japan and Korea also sent military aircraft without notifying Chinese authorities, Beijing said Thursday. Korea’s military said it met no resistance from Beijing when its aircraft crossed over the overlapping air defense zones near Ieodo.

Strategic talks between Washington, Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul are expected to be held this month in light of the rising security tensions in the region, according to government officials here.

U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. kicks off an Asia tour in Tokyo today and then heads to Beijing and Seoul as a display of the Barack Obama administration’s so-called pivot to Asia.

While Biden was initially expected to help ease historical tensions between Seoul and Tokyo, the air defense identification zone is expected to be the main issue during his trip.

Biden is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tomorrow, and Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun reported yesterday that Japan and the United States may request China’s retraction of its ADIZ in a joint statement. Abe told reporters yesterday that Japan “will work closely with the U.S. to deal [with the issue] in talks with Vice President Biden.”

The Japanese Foreign Ministry proposed Friday that the United Nation’s International Civil Aviation Organization address the issue. Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kyou-hyun is expected to lead Korea in the discussions with his counterparts in the other three countries.


BY SARAH KIM, AHN SEONG-KYU [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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