How Dangerous Is the East China Sea Airspace?

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Last week, Dean Cheng flew from Taiwan to China through a disputed airspace that is claimed by China, Japan and now Korea. Despite the international tensions, Cheng said he wasn't too nervous.

"There's always the potential for things going wrong whenever you have a volatile mix of intense sentiments, military forces, unclear rules of engagement and certain amount of unpredictability," Cheng said.

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As a senior fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Institute, Cheng often travels throughout Asia. He can't afford to stop flying. The disputed airspace has at least 1,000 planes a day crossing through, and some airlines are getting nervous that the political dispute between China and Japan may make travelers avoid the area.

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"It you travel, you should be aware that the Chinese have upped the ante," Cheng said. "Any airline that is operating in those areas is going to be nervous."

Perhaps for good reason. Anytime there's a disputed territory and trigger-happy pilots, there's a chance for tragedy.

  • In 2001, a U.S. EP-3 surveillance aircraft was forced down after a collision with a Chinese fighter. The American crew was detained on Hainan Island for two weeks, and caused a serious diplomatic incident before the crew was returned safely. The airplane came back in boxes.
  • In 1988, the USS Vincennes said it mistook an Iranian commercial airliner headed from Iran to Dubai for a fighter jet and shot it down with a missile, killing 290 people. The ship was later found to be in Iranian territorial waters.
  • In 1983, Korean Air Lines Flight 007 strayed off course into airspace over a disputed part of the former Soviet Union and was shot down by fighters, killing all 269 passengers and crew. The Soviets claimed the aircraft was on a spy mission, and the airline blamed navigation error.
  • In 1978, another Korean Air Lines aircraft was forced down onto a Siberian lake after it failed to respond to communications. Two passengers died, and the rest were released.

On Nov. 23, Chinese officials imposed a new air defense zone over the East China Sea. Chinese officials say 55 airlines, including those from the United States, are obeying the new zone rules, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. The rules require airlines passing through to file flight plans with China or face military action. But Japanese and South Korean airlines -- which operate much of the traffic through the zone -- are ignoring the rules.

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Cheng says the current dispute is dangerous because it's not clear how Chinese fighter pilots who patrol its new "Air Defense Identification Zone" will respond if a civilian aircraft finds itself off course, or in case of a communications snafu.

Other experts say that the real trouble will likely come between rival military aircraft, such as the incident in 2001 between China and the United States.

"The issue is pilot error and how clear the lines of control and authority and engagement are on all sides," said R. John Hansman, director of the International Center for Air Transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

On Monday, Chinese officials expressed "regret" over South Korea's decision to expand its existing air zone to include space over a submerged reef known as the called the Suyan Rock by China and Ieodo by South Korea.

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