Report: China to Impose ‘Air Defense Identification Zone’ in South China Sea

WOODY ISLAND, SOUTH CHINA SEA - APRIL 26, 2016: DigitalGlobe imagery from 26 April 2016 of Woody Island (Yongxing Island) in the South China Sea. The Island has been under the control of the People's Republic of China since 1956. (Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images)
DigitalGlobe via Getty Images

A report in the South China Morning Post cites Chinese sources as stating that Beijing is preparing to impose an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea, which would require all aircraft to allow China to track their movements in the region, even over the sovereign territory of other nations.

“If the US military keeps making provocative moves to challenge China’s sovereignty in the region, it will give Beijing a good opportunity to declare an ADIZ in the South China Sea,” the South China Morning Post quotes its source as stating. The newspaper identifies the source only as being “close” to the People’s Liberation Army. The newspaper cites other reports stating that it appears that the Chinese government has already done the work of outlining the territory they will establish the ADIZ over, and are waiting for the optimal moment to issue the announcement.

The newspaper reached out to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, which neither confirmed nor denied the report. Instead, the ministry responded that announcing an ADIZ was within “the right of a sovereign state.” “Regarding when to declare such a zone, it will depend on whether China is facing security threats from the air, and what the level of the air safety threat is,” it concluded.

An ADIZ requires extensive surveillance technology and the military resources necessary to punish any aircraft that violate the rules of the zone: it must identify itself to the country imposing the zone, allowing itself to be fully tracked. The Chinese government has already imposed one of these zones over a region it does not control: the East China Sea. In 2013, China announced an ADIZ over the Senkaku Islands, which belong to Japan but China claims as its own. Both Japan and the United States refused to abide by the ADIZ, with American officials reminding Beijing that any attack on a Japanese aircraft would force the United States, bound by treaty to defend Japan, to attack China. The Chinese government has not enforced the ADIZ since, though it is technically still in effect.

The Diplomat, a foreign policy analysis site, suggests that China may be looking to issue the threat to keep American ships and planes out of the region, noting that the East China Sea ADIZ has been difficult to enforce. American military officials have been clear that they believe the U.S. military has the right to “fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows” — a phrase that has become a mantra of sorts for Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.

An ADIZ that does not involve Japanese territory presents a different challenge for America. While America has maintained military agreements with the nations potentially affected by a South China Sea ADIZ, no equivalent to the treaty between Washington and Tokyo exists in the region. It is unlikely that the United States will abide by an ADIZ there, anyway, and Washington has already been working to help allies like the Philippines protect itself from a Chinese attack. Most recently, President Barack Obama announced an end to a weapons embargo on Vietnam, which would also allow that nation to arm itself faster against China.

“We have spoken quite plainly to our Chinese counterparts and said that we think an ADIZ would be destabilizing. We would prefer that all of the claims in the South China Sea be handled through mediation and not force or coercion,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said in March when rumors of a Chinese ADIZ first began to surface.

While it is unclear where the South China Sea ADIZ would land, experts contend it will likely be part of the entirety of a region circled by what China calls the “nine-dash line,” a line China claims marks the nation’s maritime borders. The line cuts through the sovereign territory of the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia, and stops near Indonesia’s Natuna Island, alarming that nation, as well.

In 2014, the Chinese government vowed it would not establish an ADIZ in the South China Sea unless it identified a threat to its assets there. Those assets have grown significantly since then, as China has built military facilities on artificial islands carved out of reefs and shoals that form part of Vietnam and the Philippines’s Spratly and Paracel Islands.

Chinese media are reporting that the government is ready to “pressure Washington” over the South China Sea issue, urging the U.S. military to diminish its presence there. Xinhua, a state news outlet, is once again showcasing numerous articles urging the United States to stay out of the region and allow China to usurp the territory of its neighbors. One article cites a “U.S. expert” stating that America has “selectively neglected the fact that the U.S. allies and rival claimants in the region have also been engaged in such activities. It is their actions that are mainly responsible for the region’s militarization.” It does not cite examples of this.