No End in Sight for Chinese Air Restriction Zone

FAA punts to State Dept. on guidance for commercial flights while analysts eye busy, tense airspace.

Taiwanese Air Force lieutenant-general Shen I-Ming introduces a map of Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea during a press conference in Taipei on Dec. 2, 2013.
By + More

Tensions are boiling in the East China Sea and will likely continue as South Korea becomes the latest nation to formally protest new Chinese air restriction rules.

The Republic of Korea announced Monday it would likely expand its own "Aerial Defense Identification Zone" to include part of the region near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, over which China created an ADIZ last week. This follows Japanese outrage and confusion over whether the U.S., its staunch ally, warned its commercial pilots to avoid the region.

[READ: Joe Biden Heads to Asia to Talk Trade, Security]

Vice President Joe Biden continues his trip to Japan and China, and eventually South Korea in an attempt to prevent tempers from flaring further. International analysts, however, say diffusing the air restriction zone fallout will be a long game.

"I don't think the Chinese will retract it under any circumstances," says Bonnie Glaser, a China expert with the D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The last thing China wants to be seen is as bowing to pressure from foreigners."

The next steps, then, are ensuring a framework exists for regional countries to hammer out their differences in case of a crisis, such as the 2001 "Hainan Island incident." This accidental collision between a U.S. surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet killed the Chinese pilot and brought the U.S. and China to the brink of conflict. Cooler heads eventually prevailed upon realizing the potential international ramifications of breaking relations.

But that conclusion may not be so easily achieved in a row between the Japanese and Chinese, two nations with historic grudges that experts say have a difficult time empathizing with the other.

The Chinese government on Monday urged Japan to "face and seriously introspect" its history of invasion, according to state-sponsored news service Xinhua. Monday marks the 70th anniversary of the Japanese declarations of war that contributed to the outbreak of World War II.

"We urge again the Japanese side to face and seriously introspect its invasion history, honor its words and seriously implement its international responsibilities, so as to gain trust from its Asian neighboring countries and the international community," said Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry.

[ALSO: U.S. Rejects New Chinese Rules for Flying Over Disputed Airspace]

The Japanese foreign ministry expressed outrage over the weekend, following reports that the U.S. government instructed commercial pilots to cede to the Chinese rules.

"The U.S. action may represent Washington's intention to be interpreted either way, giving consideration to both commercial carriers demanding the safety of flights and the Japanese government," a ministry official told Japanese newspaper the Asahi Shimbun.

A spokesman from the Federal Aviation Administration declined to comment Monday, deferring instead to the State Department, when asked what guidance the civil aviation organization would give to commercial airliners.

The State Department doubled back on its position over the weekend.

"The U.S. government generally expects that U.S. carriers operating internationally will operate consistent with [Notices to Airmen] issued by foreign countries," said a statement issued by the department Saturday. "Our expectation of operations by U.S. carriers consistent with NOTAMs does not indicate U.S. government acceptance of China's requirements for operating in the newly declared ADIZ."

The key element in adherence to these new Chinese rules lies in whether the flight is bound for mainland China. Secretary of State John Kerry was quick to point out days after the Chinese announced the ADIZ that all aircraft are already subject to these same rules if entering another nation's airspace to land.

Route maps published by U.S. commercial carriers such as US Airways and Delta show very few trips that would take a commercial jet through the region cordoned off by China's air restriction zone.

But the region remains rife with military aircraft. Japan scrambled F-15s hours after the Chinese established the air defense zone as a show of force. The U.S. flew two B-52 bombers through days later.