China's New Air Defense Zone: What It Means for Your Flight

by  Karen Gardiner | Dec 4, 2013
Map of China
Map of China / Bubbers13/iStock

You may have heard about the political storm brewing over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the South China Sea. China has recently declared the airspace above these islands as part of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), meaning that they effectively control the airspace over this Japanese territory. If you're planning a trip to China, you're probably wondering what this means for your flight, which will likely pass through the disputed air space. The good news, if you are flying on a U.S. carrier at least, is not much.

While the United States has not formally recognized China's ADIZ, they have agreed to notify Beijing when U.S.-based planes enter the area. They're also  ensuring that pilots adhere to their declared flight paths. (All airlines declare their flight plans to international authorities anyway, so it's not really any different in this case.) American air carriers United, American, and Delta Airlines have all made official statements to that effect, as have Singapore Airlines and Qantas, as well as civil aviation officials from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea. As such, travelers flying through the area on U.S. carriers should not see any disruption to their travel plans. But what of travelers flying with Japanese carriers?

Japan's two biggest airlines, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways (ANA), which both offer routes between the U.S. and China via Japan, initially agreed to China's new regulations but, under pressure from the Japanese government, have since stopped doing so. So, how is China intending to enforce the ADIZ if Japan is going to ignore it? At this point, it's not clear.

The dispute has been brewing for some time, but recent developments have brought things to an especially tense point. The dispute has largely been a struggle between China and Japan – although Taiwan and South Korea are also claiming ownership of some of the area – with most provocations from either side occurring on the sea. The dispute escalated into airspace late last month with China declaring the ADIZ, which covers almost one million square miles of ocean. The new air traffic restrictions in the airspace over the islands (and also some of Japan's own air defense zone), require any aircraft within the zone to comply with any regulations demanded by China.

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