Overlooked in the uproar over China’s announcement, on Nov. 23, 2013, of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) is the fact that Beijing’s exertion of sovereignty over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, did not have to overlap with about 3,000 square kilometers of South Korea’s own ADIZ. The overlap encompasses South Korea’s Ieodo (Suyan) Rock, grazing the Western fringe of Jeju-do’s airspace in the process.
The overlap however is noted in Seoul.
The Hankyoreh began its report by noting the inclusion of Ieodo in the ADIZ, while South Korea’s defense minister Kim Min-seok said Korean aircraft would continue to fly in the area covered by the ADIZ without informing China.
In an attempt to offset tension, the Chinese press immediately disseminated a Chinese defense ministry statement that China had “no territorial dispute” with Seoul over Ieodo, and that Beijing and Seoul would resolve the issue via “friendly consultations and negotiations.”
On December 8, 2013, South Korea announced it is expanding its 62 year-old air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in a clear reaction to China’s own new ADIZ. The announcement adds over 25,000 sq. mi to Korea’s ADIZ, which now covers the submerged rocks that are the subject of a territorial dispute between South Korea and China. Seoul’s new ADIZ also overlaps with the ADIZs of both China and Japan.
Unlike China, however, Seoul had conferred in advance with neighboring countries, including the U.S., China, and Japan, before its ADIZ announcement.
According to remarks by Jang Hyuk, head of policy for South Korea’s Defense Ministry, the government believes that the move “will not significantly impact our relationships with China and with Japan as we try to work for peace and cooperation in Northeast Asia” and that “related countries” are overall “in agreement that this move complies with international regulations and is not an excessive measure.”
China had a muted reaction to South Korea’s announcement. Partially, this was an inevitable result of China’s own insistence that its ADIZ was in accordance with international precedent and convention — China would have a hard time now arguing that South Korea has no right to expand its own ADIZ. In response to a question about the issue, China Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesman Hong Lei confirmed that China had been notified in advance by the Republic of Korea (ROK). Nevertheless, “China expresses regret” over the decision to expand the Korean ADIZ. “China will stay in communication with the ROK in the principle of equality and mutual respect. We hope that the ROK will meet China halfway.”
As for the issue of the disputed territories with South Korea, Hong made an odd remark — that “an ADIZ is not the [sic] territorial airspace … It has nothing to do with maritime and air jurisdiction.” But that is precisely what China’s ADIZ is, having everything to do with “territorial airspace” and with “maritime and air jurisdiction”!
China’s restraint towards South Korea only draws more attention to its diplomatic row with Japan. Japan’s parliament recently passed a resolution calling for China to rescind its ADIZ. China’s reaction to this development was far more aggressive than its response to South Korea: “Japan’s accusation against China confuses right and wrong and is totally groundless,” Hong Lei said. China is “strongly dissatisfied” with Japan, two words that China did not use for South Korea’s ADIZ.
Interestingly, most of the concern Chinese scholars do show over South Korea’s move circles back to Japan. In an op-ed for China News, Xue Baosheng of Jilin University writes that China is concerned that Japan might use Korea’s action as an excuse to make its own provocative moves, and that South Korea may not truly understand the “sinister motives” of Japanese authorities, but instead is used by Japan to attack China.
Most Chinese commentators, including Xue, feel a certain kinship with South Korea because both countries suffered under Japanese occupation during World War II. An editorial in China’s Global Times dismissed Korea’s move as a “small tactical advantage” with no major strategic significance, but noted that if Japan had been the one to expand its ADIZ, it would have provoked a strong reaction from China.
The Global Times also noted how different the U.S.’s reaction was to South Korea’s expanded ADIZ. The U.S. State Department issued a statement implicitly comparing South Korea’s ADIZ announcement to China’s: “We appreciate the ROK’s efforts to pursue this action in a responsible, deliberate fashion by prior consultations with the United States and its neighbors, including Japan and China. We also appreciate [South Korea’s] commitment to implement this adjustment to its ADIZ in a manner consistent with international practice and respect for the freedom of overflight and other internationally lawful uses of international airspace,” noting that South Korea does not expect commercial aircraft to comply with the ADIZ regulations. In contrast, the Global Times argued that U.S. and Japanese hostility to China is a reflection of China’s status a “rising major power.”
But the Global Times‘ paternalistic benevolence toward South Korea has its limits. The editorial warned that, should South Korea cross the line in its relationship with China, China could retaliate by disrupting economic ties or by stirring up trouble with North Korea.
The reason for the difference in China’s attitude toward Japan’s ADIZ vs. South Korea’s ADIZ is rooted in China’s irridentist nationalism. In contrast to its experiences with Japan, China had lost no territory to nor had China been invaded by Korea.