Dark Skies: China’s Controversial Air Zone Clouds Biden’s Beijing Visit

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Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force plane flying over the disputed islets known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and Diaoyu islands in China, in the East China Sea, in 2011.

The skies were blue in Beijing for U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden’s Dec. 4-5 visit — a break from the smog that occasionally envelops China’s capital. But the atmospherics surrounding Biden’s trip to Beijing — part of an East Asia tour that has taken him to Tokyo and then leads him to Seoul — were rather less sunny. On Thursday, while speaking to members of the American business community in China, Biden blamed the Chinese leadership for a security shift that has “caused significant apprehension in the region.”

Biden was referring to China’s announcement late last month that it wanted certain powers over a patch of sky in the East China Sea. China’s newly formed Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) overlaps with those previously designated by both Japan and South Korea. (Any nation can form its own ADIZ since it is not a legally binding zone in international law.) Beijing requires foreign aircraft — civilian as well as military — flying through its new ADIZ to provide flight information beforehand to Chinese authorities. More controversially, China and Japan’s ADIZs clash in the skies over a disputed set of islands that Japan administers but China also claims.

(MORE: Forget Trade Talks, Biden Is in East Asia to Stop a Potential War)

Beijing’s initial announcement of the ADIZ referred to the possibility of “defensive emergency measures” against any foreign offenders, even though the ADIZ is not sovereign airspace but a self-designated buffer zone in international skies. But 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. The U.S. says it does not recognize the ADIZ. While in Tokyo, Biden criticized the zone’s creation as China acting “unilaterally [to] change the status quo.”

Since the unexpected Nov. 23 proclamation of the new Chinese ADIZ, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. have all flown military jets through the zone without forewarning Beijing — all without incident. Many civilian airliners have provided flight plans to the Chinese, while Japanese ones have been advised by their government not to do so. Still, the lack of transparency surrounding Beijing’s announcement has led to criticism both about the inchoate message of China’s p.r. machine and its contrasting approaches to different countries. The U.S. and Japan were given just minutes’ notice of the ADIZ announcement, according to U.S. foreign-policy advisers and foreign diplomats in Beijing. The South Koreans, says one high-level Chinese foreign-policy advisor, were given more advanced warning. Beijing’s relations with Seoul are considerably warmer than those with Washington and Tokyo.

Chinese foreign-policy analysts, including ones who advise the Chinese leadership, said that the internal discussion about forming an ADIZ has been ongoing for at least a year. So why the last-minute notification to foreign governments and the lack of lucidity about what the new zone entails? “I see a big necessity to clarify the ADIZ,” says Zhu Feng, the deputy director of Peking University’s Center for International and Strategic Studies. “For example, when China says it will take defensive measures if a plane crosses the ADIZ, what does China mean? Beijing needs to clarify, and this will help the dust settle.”

(MORE: Why China’s New Air-Defense Zone Matters)

On Wednesday, Biden spent more than five hours meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping. The two had developed a personal rapport while they were both their nations’ vice-presidents. (Xi was promoted to President in March, although he took up more important leadership positions before then.) In the run-up to Biden’s Asia trip, one senior administration official said that Biden “knows President Xi as well or better than probably any American, and possibly virtually any leader.” But the U.S. Vice-President emerged from his marathon pow-wow with Xi — during which the ADIZ took up a significant portion of the discussion, according to administration officials — with little tangible to show off publicly on this geopolitical issue. Still, as administration officials noted, it will take the coming weeks and months to see how forcefully China enforces the rules it appears to have set on its ADIZ.

Biden also took time on Thursday to chastise China over the treatment of foreign journalists, some of whose visas have been held up during the annual year-end visa renewal process for what are believed to be political reasons. Certain foreign news websites that have exposed the Communist Party’s dirty laundry are blocked by Chinese censors, and individual articles or issues deemed too sensitive are often banned as well. “Innovation thrives where people breathe freely, speak freely, are able to challenge orthodoxy, where newspapers can report the truth without fear of consequences,” said Biden in Beijing.

In his trademark folksy manner, Biden noted the gulf that often exists between the U.S. and China. “We have our differences, and they are real,” he said on Thursday. Here’s just one of many contrasts: the same day that Biden met with Xi, China’s official news agency, Xinhua, noted that China’s leader had “urged all Party members to learn Marxist philosophy to better understand the country’s situation.” The Chinese President, whose more august title is that of General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, was leading a study group among top Chinese leaders. Xi proclaimed, according to Xinhua, that “Marxist philosophy, which has revealed the general rule of human society development, still has strong vitality.” Xi and Biden may be old acquaintances but philosophy, not to mention geopolitics, remains a divisive force.

MORE: The U.S., Japan and South Korea Flout China’s Air Defense Zone. What’s a Superpower to Do?

16 comments
jefforsythe9
jefforsythe9

People who live in the West are very naive concerning the ambitions of the blood-thirsty Chinese Communist Party. If it were not for the strength of the U.S. military machine the brutal CCP would have destroyed Western civilization years ago. This is the true nature of the CCP. The CCP has murdered over fifty million of its own people since 1949 and is now attempting the genocide of the tens of millions of innocent Falun Gong practitioners who live in China. This genocide consists of torture, slavery, organ harvesting and murder. People living in the West have not been allowed to know these truths because of corporate greed. This is the truth concerning the heinous CCP.

fccspy
fccspy

Honestly I don't see anything wrong with China setting up its own ADIZ.  Both USA and Japan have its own, so do many other countries.  Did Japan consult China when it set up its ADIZ 44 years ago?  

ChinaLee
ChinaLee

The JAPANESE ADIZ (ie. air defense identification zone) is ridiculously huge and encompasses most of East Asia.

No other country in the world has a Japanese-style ADIZ that is four times larger than the host country (e.g. Japan).

In comparison, the Chinese ADIZ is a mere one-tenth the size of China's landmass. Compliance with China's ADIZ is easy. Email them your flight plan. That's it.

JohnNagel
JohnNagel

Obama created the Chinese air defense zone because he is a POS, er POTUS, who is weakened by scandal, the Obamacare catastrophe, the out of control NSA spying of the citizens of the world and the U.S., not to mention his human rights abuses and organized crime connections. The Chinese note his incompetence, sense that the US is a weakened ally for Japan and take advtangage of the situation. Its almost like the Chinese have something on Obama. Like this http://www.scribd.com/doc/171852824/Obama-s-Worst-NSA-Scandal-Why-the-Capo-Gringo-Cut-His-Own-Throat

PulSamsaraXi
PulSamsaraXi

@fccspy   And I don't see anything wrong with the world ignoring 'China's little lines on paper'.

CastleAge
CastleAge

@zen4fingcynics What Chinese propaganda? Enlighten me. Please do not cite a blog from someone who has strong anti-china sentiment and it just shows how biased you are regarding the current situation. 

fccspy
fccspy

@PulSamsaraXi @fccspy Did you read the news?  Most airlines do cmply including 3 US carriers.  As to the military jets, nobody pays attention to any ADIZ.  You think China informs Japan when its fighter jets flew thru Japan's ADIZ?  Hahaha...