South Korea, Japan, and China are close to reaching an agreement regarding the control of the airspace over the East China Sea, in an attempt to put an end to a series of near-miss incidents.

The crucial agreement that follows a proposal from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) would see the responsibility of what is known as the AKARA corridor transferred to South Korean air traffic control (ATC). “The proposal we have put forward has been accepted by the three states,” ICAO Council President Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu said, quoted by Reuters. It should be finalized at the beginning of 2020.

Currently, the responsibility of the corridor is divided between South Korean and Japanese ATC, with the former directing north-south flights while the latter takes care of shepherding the east-west flights between Shanghai and the Japanese archipelago. Japan’s responsibility resulted from an agreement with China dating back to 1983, hence the presence of the latter in the current negotiations.

This arrangement has proven dangerous, with a lack of coordination between the two ATC. They also use two different radio frequencies, increasing the risk of miscommunication. ICAO decided to act after two incidents of near-misses were reported in the last two years. 

Drop of peace in ocean of tensions

The control over air spaces is at the center of regular incidents involving Japan and South Korea. On July 23, 2019, when a Russian Beriev A-50 airborne early warning and control aircraft flew near the disputed Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo Islands for South Korean, Takeshima for Japan), fighter jets of the South Korean Air Force were scrambled to intercept and fired several hundred warning shots. Following the incident, Japan filed a formal complaint against Russia… and South Korea, calling the interception “totally unacceptable and extremely regrettable.”

In September 2019, Japan referred to the islands as "inherent parts of [its] territory " in its annual defense review, sparking similar protests among South Korean officials. The report also downgraded Seoul's ranking as an important security cooperation partner from second to fourth.

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During an event marking the 71st anniversary of the South Korean Armed Forces, several F-15K fighter jets flew a patrol over the disputed islands of Dokdo (or Takeshima in Japan), causing an official protest from Japanese officials.