In late-2013, Asia-Pacific security watchers wrangled with what China’s then newly declared unilateral air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea would mean in practice for civil aviation in the region. Two powerful status quo states – the United States and Japan – immediately refused to recognize the ADIZ and reacted accordingly: The United States flew unarmed bombers through the airspace and Japan instructed its civilian aviators not to comply with the new Chinese requirements. Of course, the ADIZ was never going to immediately hurt the material interests of Japanese and American aviation – for these states, the Chinese ADIZ was more a signal of Beijing’s growing intent to revise the status quo in its near seas than anything. The states that would suffer, as is almost always the case in international affairs, would be the smaller and weaker ones.
A little-noticed report published earlier this week in Air Transport World showcases one such case. Although considerably ambiguity continues to surround this incident, according to that report, a Lao Airlines flight flying from South Korea’s Gimehae International Airport to Laos was asked to turn back by Chinese air traffic controllers and complied. The report notes that the Chinese air traffic controllers told the aircraft that it did not have adequate approval to pass through China’s airspace. According to the report, the flight (No. QV916), an Airbus A320, was an hour into its scheduled flight path, “which would have put the aircraft over disputed areas of the China Sea,” before it turned back. Starting last year, Chinese air traffic authorities began to require that all civilian flights flying through the East China Sea ADIZ file pre-flight plans, transponder details, and other technical details ahead of their flights, according to the Air Transport World report. The incident involving QV916 is the first instance of a commercial flight being turned back due to a failure to comply with Chinese air traffic authority requirements, but at least 55 airlines worldwide are complying with the terms of China’s ADIZ.