Rocks, Islands, and Air Space

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At 10 AM on November 23, the China began to enforce its new East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) to a bit of media fanfare and a good deal of international consternation. The announcement is the most recent in a series of sovereignty moves by the nations who ‘share’ the East China Sea. The main players in this theater are China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and, by extension of our close militaristic and economic ties to several of these nations, the United States.

First, take a look at this map provided by the New York Times to get a better sense of the area we’re talking about. And also, take a look at the map provided by the Chinese of their new ADIZ, and note the massive expansion of Chinese airspace from the red line delineating territorial waters.

Let’s talk about the political game. China has sought to downplay the move, with officials focusing mainly on the concept of “aviation security” and calling Japanese rhetoric “exaggeration.” However, the announcement’s ambiguous language regarding possible “defensive military measures” in the case of a perceived threat has troubled Japan and the US. China has made an aggressive and bold move, and has economic, power, and geopolitical motivations for doing so.

Significant to the announcement is the fact that the ADIZ contains the Senkaku Islands, the source of a long-standing territorial dispute between Japan and China, as well as the Socotra Rock, a submerged rock formation that China and South Korea make claim to. Acquiescence to the Chinese ADIZ could be interpreted as renouncement of these claims, for Chinese action (if not talk) has shown that the move is about more than air space control. The months leading up to the establishment of the ADIZ saw increased Chinese naval activity around the Senkaku Islands. Further, Chinese news media ran the story as a major headline, meaning that the public will expect the government to back up its claims.

These geographical features hold no economic or security value on their own, as the islands are uninhabited and Socotra Rock is underwater. However, they do stand as markers for the enforcement of China’s EEZ, or exclusive economic zone. Indeed, South Korea only claims the Socotra Rock, known as ‘Ieodo’ in Korea, as a means of enforcing its own EEZ claims, and there are some who believe the rock to be important enough to fight over. In international law, an EEZ can extend 200 nautical miles (230mi/370km) from a nation’s coast or to the edge of the continental shelf. It is this continental shelf rule that China seeks to exploit. The EEZ would give China rights to exploration for and development of marine resources in the East China Sea, namely oil and natural gas.

From here, it can be argued that the move is a bid to expand Chinese power in the entire East China Sea region. The threat of military action in the announcement is a bold one, for the Japanese have scrambled fighter jets against Chinese moves in the area before, and if push comes to shove, may do so again. However, increased Chinese naval power in the region may dissuade the Japanese from doing so and would pressure the US to mediate.

Here is where the US comes in. According to the 1960 “Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan,” the US recognizes the Senkaku as under the administration of the Japanese government, and would thus be obliged to provide military support to the Japanese if push indeed came to shove. And so the United States has major incentives to defuse the situation and bring an agreement to end the disputes here. If a conflict erupted then, aside from the obvious negative effects on trade, the military situation would deteriorate rapidly. American bases in Korea, Japan, and Okinawa as well as the aircraft carriers in the region would face significant threats, perhaps even from an emboldened North Korea seeking to capitalize on chaos.

But fear not, VP Joe Biden is on the job. His rhetoric places the blame for the tension on China’s “unilateral” challenge to the “status quo,” but it appears the Obama administration has been able to reign in its Japanese ally from escalating the faceoff. The territorial disputes involved here are old, and will not be solved easily. However, perhaps the Joint Development Region shared by the Japanese and South Korea in the waters just north of the Chinese ADIZ would serve as a good example of a possible solution. Regardless, the Chinese move must be seen as a connected piece in Chinese grand strategy. From this perspective, the US can lose a great deal if the upcoming negotiations and talks create divides between it and its important Japanese and South Korean allies in the region. As realpolitik as it sounds, tensions between China and these significant American economic and military allies can have great foreign policy value if they preserve the united front that exists against Chinese expansionist policies.

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