China's potential security game changer in the South China Sea

Mark Valencia says amid rising tensions, China may feel the need to set up an air defence zone in the South China Sea that includes some disputed Spratly Islands, a move that would threaten regional peace

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 May, 2015, 6:06pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 1:59pm

In November 2013, China surprised Japan, the US and the rest of the world by declaring an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. Ever since, there has been a hail of hyperbole from analysts, the media and even high-ranking officials, particularly from the US, regarding the possibility that China may declare a similar zone in the South China Sea.

In December 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry cautioned China to "refrain from taking similar unilateral actions elsewhere in the region and particularly in the South China Sea."

Then, in January 2014, Evan Medeiros, senior director for Asian Affairs at the US National Security Council, said: "We have been very clear with the Chinese that we would see that as a provocative and destabilising development that would result in changes in our presence and military posture in the region." Last month, US Admiral Sam Locklear, commander of US forces in the Pacific, stirred up the debate when he told a US Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that China's reclamation activities in the South China Sea could provide a "platform for enforcing an ADIZ".

What is all the fuss about? There is no international legal basis for such zones and their "rules", except perhaps the general principles of self-defence and freedom of overflight. If there is a contradiction, the former will always take precedence, for any country. Moreover, the establishment and implementation of ADIZs have always been unilateral and controversial. The US established the precedent - for itself and Japan, Taiwan and South Korea - after the second world war, and thinks that all other nations' zones should be based on its model. But being first does not justify dictating the rules for all, especially in the absence of an international agreement.

So, will China declare a zone in the South China Sea? Supposedly, a draft has been prepared by China's Air Force Command College and was submitted to the government in May 2013. The proposed zone would reportedly cover the Paracel Islands and some of the South China Sea. Officials are still deliberating on its extent and the timing of any announcement.

However, a spokesman for the foreign ministry said that "generally speaking China does not feel there is an air security threat from Asean countries and therefore does not feel a need for an ADIZ". But as US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes increase and such capabilities of US friends and allies in Asia expand, China may feel the need to protect itself against a possible threat to its national security from the air, possibly eventually with an air defence zone.

It is worrying that last month China reportedly radioed warnings to Philippine air force patrol planes to keep away from "their military security area" near Subi Reef.

There are several possible forms that a Chinese ADIZ could take and each has different political implications.

It could declare a zone out to, say, 200-250 nautical miles off its coast but not including any disputed islands or maritime space except the Paracels and possibly Pratas Island. That should be grudgingly acceptable to most critics, although its theoretical requirements and their implementation may create other problems. Pratas is claimed and occupied only by Taiwan so Beijing could simply refer to the "one China policy" to explain including it. The inclusion of the Paracels would of course rile Vietnam. But China has occupied all the Paracels since 1974. China's claims and occupation are vehemently opposed by Vietnam, but declaring a zone that includes the islands does not by itself seriously alter the practical realities.

China's ADIZ would most likely contain similar rules and regulations to the one it established in the East China Sea. This includes a controversial requirement of prior notification for foreign aircraft entering the zone, even if they are only transiting it and not destined for China's territorial airspace. But Japan has a similar requirement for Taiwanese aircraft and so do Australia, Myanmar and Taiwan for foreign aircraft entering their zones.

The US claims that it only applies its air defence identification zone "recommendations" of prior notification to civilian, not military aircraft, and that they only apply to aircraft destined for US territorial airspace. In practice, however, the US monitors and often intercepts with fighter jets both civilian and military aircraft in its zone that do not identify themselves and their destinations.

China argues that its East China Sea zone rules do not "affect" normal commercial traffic and that they do not interfere with freedom of overflight. This aspect certainly requires clarification and reassurance. But, so far in practice, China has not demonstrated any such intent. Indeed, it has done nothing more than monitor and observe foreign military aircraft flying unannounced in its zone - following the same practice as the US and Japan. As it is now, China occasionally intercepts US military surveillance aircraft over its zone, drawing US protests. But a Chinese zone in the South China Sea along the above lines, especially excluding the Paracels, would not necessarily be a game changer unless US physical challenges make it so.

However, a Chinese air defence identification zone that included some disputed Spratly Islands and their maritime space could be very destabilising. It would be a manifestation of the worst fears of the US, Japan and Southeast Asian nations that China wants to control the South China Sea, including its air corridors and sea lanes - in their eyes, tantamount to a threat to freedom of navigation. Indeed, this is the "red line" that the US has drawn.

Even if such a Chinese zone were devoid of content and unenforced, it would be a symbolic blow against the international order and probably invite purposeful provocative violations.

The region is already simmering with potential conflict. If China declares an air defence identification zone over much of the South China Sea, it could be the straw that breaks the back of peace and stability there.

Hopefully, Beijing will not find it necessary to do so - or, if it does, will restrict it largely to non-disputed areas.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou