Chinese Military Planes Buzz South Korean Air Defence Zone

Chinese military planes flew into South Korea’s air defence identification zone (KADIZ) 140 times last year without warning Seoul, according to recent reports from South Korea. While China often argues that these flights are simply “routine,” South Korea has voiced its frustration about repeated intrusions into the KADIZ, often blaming China’s Shaanxi Y-9 electronic warfare and surveillance aircraft.

In a recent incident, South Korea claims that Chinese aircraft spent more than four hours flying near Socotra Rock, also known as Ieodo or Suyan Rock – a territory at the centre of a dispute between South Korea and China. But China’s Foreign Ministry told reporters in Beijing that it was unaware of the issue. Around the same time as that incident, Japan’s airspace was also allegedly encroached by what analysts suggest was a Chinese Y-8, or medium-range transporter and cargo aircraft.

Other incidents have seen South Korea mobilize more than 10 planes to shadow Chinese aircraft during hours-long flights close to South Korean territory. During one such incident, South Korea claims it demanded the aircraft “halt its threatening flight” and that “any other actions that could raise the possibility of sudden conflict,” but Chinese officials reported that the aircraft’s movements were part of regular military exercises.

These incidents, according to South Korea, typically entail a spy plane consistently ignoring South Korean messages for hours and continuing on its route in the KADIZ before leaving the area. At times, there may be multiple, simultaneous intrusions, and the same plane may re-enter the KADIZ multiple times. In turn, China has also complained about U.S. flights within Beijing’s own claimed air defence identification zone.

Air defence identification zones differ from a country’s actual territory: for example, the KADIZ extends beyond South Korea’s border, giving the country more time to respond to hostile acts near its airspace. As a result, South Korea has little recourse beyond its usual responses: sending aircraft to intercept, calling China’s defence attaché stationed in Seoul, and publically urging Beijing to prevent a recurrence. But their frequency and suspected aims – “reconnoitering the Korean Peninsula,” according to South Korean defence officials – have played a significant role in raising tensions on the Korean Peninsula.