How a South China Sea air defence zone could be a bargaining chip for Sino-US negotiations

Mark Valencia says American fears that China could set up an air defence identification zone in disputed seas offer a chance for a mutually beneficial agreement

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 April, 2016, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 1:59pm

On March 30, US deputy defence secretary Robert Work publicly declared that the US had told China it would not recognise “an exclusion zone in the South China Sea” and would view such a move as “destabilising”. The Asia Times said the Pentagon was “trying to stop China” from declaring an air defence zone in disputed seas. These seem almost fighting words. In response, Yang Yujun, the spokesperson for China’s defence ministry, said there was no need for such “gesticulation”.

What’s going on?

The US and China are competing for dominance in the region amid conflicting sovereignty and maritime claims by China and some Southeast Asian countries. The two powers hold different perspectives on “freedom of navigation” and China’s November 2013 declaration of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea.

China weighs in on possible air defence zone in South China Sea

Some journalists and US pundits have been hyping a “what if” situation, as if to prepare for a clarion call for US military action if China declares an air defence identification zone in the South China Sea.

China has yet to declare such a zone in the South China Sea and may not do so – especially one that includes the disputed Spratly features. The US “survived” China’s declaration of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea with apparently little effect on either country. The US said it would ignore that zone and disregard any Chinese orders, although the Obama administration advised US commercial airlines to comply with China’s demands out of concern for possible “misunderstandings”.

The establishment of air defence identification zones have always been unilateral and controversial

Non-recognition of such zones is always an option. For example, China and Russia do not recognise Japan’s.

The establishment and implementation of air defence identification zones have always been unilateral and controversial. There is no international legal basis for them or their “rules” – except perhaps the general principles of self-defence and freedom of overflight, and the former will always take precedence, for any country.

The US established the precedent of an air defence identification zone and its rules – for itself and Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – after the second world war. It apparently thinks 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.

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The US seems to have two objections to a hypothetical Chinese zone in the South China Sea. If it is modelled on China’s East China Sea zone, then it would include both military and civilian aircraft, and its rules would apply to aircraft that are only transiting the zone. According to US Secretary of State John Kerry, “the US does not support efforts by any state to apply procedures of an air defence identification zone to foreign aircraft not intending to enter its national airspace. We urge China not to implement its threat to take action against aircraft that do not identify themselves or obey orders from Beijing.” Japan has a similar requirement for Taiwanese aircraft entering its zone, as do Australia, Myanmar and Taiwan for foreign aircraft. To back up this position, two unarmed but nuclear-capable US B-52 bombers flew into China’s new zone without identifying themselves, clearly testing China’s reaction.

The US claims that it only applies its rules of prior notification to enter its zones – or “recommendations” to do so – to civilian 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 that do not follow the “recommendations” of identifying themselves and their destinations, particularly Russian Bear bombers in the zones off Alaska.

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China claims that its East China Sea zone rules do not affect normal commercial traffic and or interfere with freedom of overflight. This aspect certainly requires clarification and reassurance. But, so far, China has not shown any hostile intent.

Some 55 airlines in 19 countries have complied with China’s zone rules. South Korea and Japan said its airlines do not recognise the zone. But China has done nothing more than monitor and observe foreign military aircraft flying unannounced in it – following the same practice as the US and Japan.

An air defence identification zone in the South China Sea may help China counter US and potential Japanese aerial reconnaissance measures – long a bone of contention between China and the US. The US has regularly sent EP3-E surveillance planes and more recently Poseiden 8As along the coast of China to intercept communications and monitor coastal and maritime military activities, including submarine movements, averaging 400 such flights each year. The aircraft sometimes “tickle” the Chinese military, generating responses which can then be monitored for planning military attacks.

Other airborne activities have been alleged to include interference with communications, jamming of radar, and cyber attacks. These activities appear to involve far greater interference with the communications and defence systems of China than any traditional passive intelligence gathering conducted from outside national territory. Indeed, China has alleged that these activities abuse the principle of freedom of overflight.

First of all, air defence identification zones covering parts of the South China Sea already exist – one by Taiwan and one by the Philippines. So this would not necessarily be something completely new.

There are several possibilities. China may not declare such a zone. Ironically, whether it does or not may depend on US behaviour. If the US continues its provocative behaviour in China’s exclusive economic zone, Beijing may perceive an “aerial threat” sufficient to declare an air defence identification zone. This is rational and understandable.

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China could declare a zone out to, say, 200 nautical miles off its South China Sea coast but not including any disputed islands or maritime space, except the Paracels – which are disputed between only China and Vietnam – and possibly Pratas Islands (which are claimed and occupied by Taiwan). That would probably be grudgingly accepted by most of its critics.

But a Chinese zone that includes some disputed Spratly islands and their maritime space would be politically problematic for all concerned. It would be a manifestation of the worst fears of the US, Japan and Southeast Asian militaries that China wants to control the South China Sea, including its air corridors and sea lanes. This would, in their eyes, be tantamount to a threat to freedom of navigation and may even be a red line for the US. Indeed, the US and others would probably repeatedly and publicly violate it with military aircraft, embarrassing China’s leadership. That is why China is unlikely to do so.

What would a compromise look like? China wants the US to cease or at least cut back on its provocative probes. The US does not want China to declare an air defence identification zone over the Spratlys or further militarise its reclaimed features there. A trade-off might be possible.

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