After Unilateral Air Defense Move, Beijing Sends Carrier to Another Sensitive Area

By Patrick Goodenough | November 27, 2013 | 12:23 AM EST

The Chinese Navy’s aircraft carrier Liaoning. (AP Photo, File)

( – Amid tensions over China’s bid to exert sovereignty over a Japanese-controlled but contested area of the East China Sea, Beijing has dispatched its only aircraft carrier for the first time to the South China Sea, where it is embroiled in further disputes with neighboring countries.

Earlier, two Guam-based long-range U.S. bombers flew through what China at the weekend declared as its “air defense identification zone” (ADIZ), an area over the East China Sea that includes islands hotly disputed between China and Japan.

The Pentagon described the B-52 flights as a long-planned training exercise that went off without incident.

China's Defense Ministry said in a statement Wednesday its air force had “monitored the entire course [of the flight], identified them in a timely way, and ascertained the type of U.S. aircraft.”

“China will identify all aircraft activity in East China Sea air defense identification zone,” it said. “China has the ability to effectively manage and control the relevant air zone.”

Shortly after China made the ADIZ announcement on Saturday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel pointed out that the U.S. regards the islands – called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China – as falling within the scope of its treaty obligations with Japan, and specifically an article committing it to act in the event of an armed attack “in the territories under the administration of Japan.”

Japan’s mass-circulation Yomiuri Shimbun daily said in an editorial Beijing’s move “embodies its military strategy of enclosing the East China Sea and other Asian maritime areas as its zones of influence to deny access by the U.S. military.”

On Tuesday, the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning left its homeport accompanied by four other warships, for the South China Sea. China claims sovereignty over practically the entire sea, despite competing claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

Some of those countries have also sought Washington’s support. As with the Senkaku/Diaoyu case, the U.S. has refrained from taking sides in the various South China Sea disputes, although it has also reaffirmed its mutual defense treaty commitments in the case of the Philippines.

The Chinese Navy on its website described the voyage of the Liaoning as a normal part of the new vessel’s training schedule, and said it would include weapons systems’ testing.

Previous trips by the carrier, a refitted Russian-made ship bought from Ukraine and delivered to China last year, have been much further north in the Yellow Sea, the body of water between China and the Korean peninsula.

This is also the first time the Liaoning has sailed as part of a carrier group. It is being escorted by two missile destroyers and two missile frigates.

The Global Times, a paper affiliated to the Chinese Communist Party, said in an editorial that the timing of the ADIZ announcement and carrier voyage was coincidental, but predicted that “distorted interpretations” would be inevitable.

It defended a rising China’s need for an aircraft carrier.

“Given the special geopolitical pressure, Beijing has been confronted with more security challenges than peripheral nations, which is a normal phenomenon for a country viewed as the No.2 power on the world stage,” it said.

Meanwhile the Japanese government has urged national airlines to stop reporting their movements to Chinese authorities. Japanese chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga said the airlines were told that Japan does not recognize China’s unilaterally-declared ADIZ.

Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways confirmed earlier that they had begun to lodge flight plans with China for trips crossing the demarcated zone, in line with the new procedures laid down by Beijing.

China wants all aircraft to provide a flight plan and nationality and to maintain radio communication with Chinese authorities so as to “follow other relevant instructions” while in the zone. It says the ADIZ will allow it to identify, monitor, and if necessary, take “defensive measures” against any aircraft entering what it calls its airspace.

China maintains that its ADIZ is no different than others that exist around the world, but Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out earlier that the one in place over most of North America does not apply to foreign aircraft not intending to enter U.S. national airspace.

Similarly, Japan’s ADIZ, in place since the 1960s, only requires planes that are approaching Japanese airspace to identify themselves.

China’s zone could affect aircraft flying between two non-Chinese destinations.

A B-52 Stratofortress at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam on April 2, 2013. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Benjamin Wiseman)

“This unilateral action appears to be an attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea, and thus will raise regional tensions and increase the risk of miscalculation, confrontation, and accidents,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday.

Center for Strategic and International Studies scholars have pointed to the risk of a mid-air collision between Chinese and Japanese fighters where the two countries zones now overlap, recalling the crisis in China-U.S. relations that erupted when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3 plane on a surveillance mission in 2001

Australia joined the U.S. and Japan in criticizing the Chinese ADIZ decision, summoning the Chinese ambassador for an explanation and reiterating its “opposition to any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the East China Sea.”

South Korea also said it could not recognize the Chinese move. Seoul is also directly affected, as a disputed rocky outcrop where it has built an unmanned nautical research station falls within the northern part of the ADIZ.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow