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On November 23, China ’s Ministry of Defense declared an “air defense identification zone” in the East China Sea. The purpose of the zone is clearly to expose the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia ” as a farce. The practical impact is that Beijing demands that all civilian and military aircraft file flight plans with China and corresponding notification for seacraft prior to entering the zone. The threat is that “defensive emergency measures” will be undertaken—that is, any aircraft could be shot down by the Chinese air force in the zone after jets are sent aloft to threaten to do so. China has also announced that more such zones will be declared in the future. Beijing ’s claim to the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, which are part of Taiwan ’s territory, are likely to be next.


The bellicose result is that Beijing has sought unilaterally to void claims over islands hitherto claimed as sovereign territory of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwa . Tokyo ’s purchase from a private investor of three island rocks among the eight Pinnacle Islands (claimed by China as the Diaoyutai Islands, by the Japanese as Senkakus) last year may be the impetus for the zone. But the Chinese also thereby claim sovereignty over a South Korean research installation.

One of the next zones will doubtless declare sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea that are closer to and claimed by Malaysia , the Philippines , and Vietnam . The Chinese have already fired shots to enforce their claims over the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands .

Under international law, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, every country has sovereign control only over 12 miles from its shores, though an exclusive economic zone 200 miles from its shore, provided that the economic zone does not infringe on the territory or zone of another country. There is no international agreement about air defense zones, though the 12-mile limit has been respected for purposes of air and sea incursions. Now China claims to control all civilian air travel in one of the busiest air corridors in the world, contrary to the Convention. Both Japan and the United States have long had air defense zones, so Beijing claims that such zones are a “common practice.”

The main immediate problem is that half of the Chinese zone overlaps that of Japanese, and both are uncompromising. China believes that the Pinnacle Islands were to be returned from Japanese control after World War II, according to an executive agreement between the government heads of Britain , the Soviet Union, and the United States at the Potsdam Conference in 1945, a very weak premise to claim any rights under international law. Such a reversion was impossible during the American postwar occupation of Japan , especially after China enter the Korean War in 1950. When the United States withdrew from Okinawa in 1971, Washington allowed Tokyo to take over the Pinnacle Islands at a time when China was weakened by the Cultural Revolution.

We have seen this movie before. In 1938, Adolf Hitler declared that Sudetenland must become a part of Germany , not Czechoslovakia , on the basis of the principle of self-determination. At a conference in Munich , Britain accepted the claim, ignoring the trend established by the previous Nazi land grab in the Rhineland during 1936. Next, German troops overran all Czechoslovakia . World War II, then recognized as inevitable, began when German attacked Poland in 1939 on the pretext of reclaiming Danzig (as Russian troops likewise attacked Poland ).

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In response to the Chinese declaration, Japan , South Korea , and the United States immediately flew military aircraft within the “defense zone” without incident. Seoul and Tokyo also instructed their civilian aircraft to ignore the zones. Although on November 23 Defense Secretary Chuck Hagen indicated that military aircraft would continue to fly in the zone without reporting to China , the Federal Aviation Administration asked American civilian aircraft to comply by filing flight plans with China . That same day, China responded by sending an air patrol, including fighter jets, to police the zone, though in the past China has sent aircraft and ships to patrol the sea lanes that now fall under the newly announced zone.

Besides a military response to a military declaration, what hopes are there for international diplomacy? The UN Law of the Sea Treaty has a court for resolving such issues. Territorial claims have long been a staple before the International Court of Justice, which recently ruled on a matter about territory disputed between Cambodia and Thailand . The UN Security Council presumably could take up the matter. But China has refused to allow any discussion on the matter. The recent trip of Vice President Joe Biden to Beijing , has been likened to Neville Chamberlain’s visit to Munich , as his attempt at bilateral diplomacy yielded nothing but a plea for China to stop enforcement of the zone, thereby recognizing the zone as a fait accompli. The United States has duplicitously failed to support Japan ’s opposition to the zone itself.

Now all countries are free to declare wide air defense zones, with a dizzying number of overlaps around the world. South Korea did so on December 8. France could declare sovereignty over Britain ’s Jersey Island . The sovereignty of Cyprus and Malta could be placed in jeopardy by conflicting air defense assertions. Argentina and Chile could contest claims to Tierra Del Fuego . The Falkland Islands would become the Malvinas Islands . Indonesia and Malaysia could swallow up Singapore in their zones. Were Gabon to declare such a zone, Sao Tomé and Principe would be defenseless, and Equatorial Guinea would lose Annobón. The Caribbean would be a sea of counterclaims, such that Cuba could ask for Chinese help to impose an air defense zone that could intrude to Florida .

In an age of drones, the air will no longer be safe for anyone. Terrorists can easily join the scramble.


China has opened a can of worms. Thus far, there have been few early birds to deal with the matter effectively. But world action is needed now, not speeches, and not more aggressive actions. Plans to organize an international conference could take months or years.

The UN General Assembly should immediately bring up the matter, which demands international attention now, before dogfights begin.

Michael Haas