Analysis: ADIZ in South China Sea unlikely for now say experts
Last week the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) deployed J-11B fighters to Woody Island in the South China Sea. Simultaneously, Y-9 transport aircraft from the Western Theatre Command flew to the same maritime area to support mock combat operations.
In the light of such activity, it is an ideal time to address speculation that China will establish an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea.
A group of academics and experts on the South China Sea issue, speaking at a seminar in Hong Kong organised by Bloomberg, Chatham House and Hong Kong’s Lingnan University on 1 December, predicted that no ADIZ will be declared in the near future.
In fact, Chinese moves in the South China Sea have been relatively quiet in recent months as President Xi Jinping consolidates the gains he has already achieved. Nevertheless, the South China Sea remains a potential flashpoint as Asia witnesses the end of an era of unipolarity.
With reclaimed island facilities now in place in the Spratly Islands (e.g. Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef) plus bases in the Paracels, the PLA’s ability to enforce an ADIZ over the South China Sea has improved. However, it still could not do so to the extent it can over the East China Sea where it unilaterally created an ADIZ in November 2013.
Incidentally, one academic noted that China’s East China Sea ADIZ has not been well implemented, as there is internal competition between the PLAAF and the PLA Navy Air Force (PLANAF) as to who should be responsible for it.
Most panellists at the Hong Kong seminar, unnamed here because of Chatham House rules, agreed it would be counterproductive if China declared a South China Sea ADIZ in the short term, as it would undo all the recent improvement in relations with neighbours such as the Philippines.
'My guess is that plans have been drawn up – militaries are always drawing up plans; that’s what they do – to declare an ADIZ over the South China Sea. It would be easier to enforce because of the artificial islands and the equipment that’s been set up on those islands,' one expert commented.
However, he noted, ‘If China were to declare an ADIZ in the South China Sea, or parts thereof, that would raise tensions with Southeast Asian countries and, at this point in time when things are going pretty well in the South China Sea, why would China do that? That seems very counterproductive to me.’
He therefore concluded, ‘I think it’s unlikely for the short term that China would declare an ADIZ over the South China Sea but, mid- to long term, if I were a betting person, I’d probably say the odds are they will. Why build all that infrastructure and not use it?’
Another consideration is gaps in coverage over parts of the South China Sea; after all, it is a remote area. China would embarrass and ensnare itself if it declares an ADIZ it is unable to enforce.
One final critical factor was pointed out by another panellist: ‘Where do you draw the lines? The U-shaped line, China’s historic claim? If you draw any line that isn’t the U-shaped line, then you’re conceding sovereignty.’ Preferring ambiguity, China does not want to draw baselines and mark the extent of its territorial claims.
Furthermore, drawing the line around only above-water features means China’s claimed southernmost point of James Shoal would be disqualified. On the other hand, to create an ADIZ based on below-water features would make China a legal laughingstock.
‘I think it’s unlikely for the short term that China would declare an ADIZ over the South China Sea but, mid- to long term, if I were a betting person, I’d probably say the odds are they will.'— Panellist
Concerning activity in the South China Sea, there was a consensus among the regional-based panellists that the status quo is likely to continue in the short term.
Of course, things could change quickly if one territory claimant unilaterally decided to opt for joint resource development with China, or if a mistake happened during a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) by the US Navy.
While an accidental conflict could occur, the US military and PLA have fairly clear-cut sets of rules to give each other space during FONOPs and passages.
Bill Hayton, associate fellow of the Asia Programme at Chatham House, listed three threats to the status quo in the South China Sea. One is ‘claimant states that refuse to accept compromise on territorial claims’ and a second is ‘claimant states that deny the role of UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] in the South China Sea’.
Finally, he declared ‘claims to ‘historic rights’ are a clear threat to peace’. Hayton was referring to China’s historical narrative that is replete with errors.
He warned that Chinese textbooks are educating a new generation of young nationalists with deliberate historical errors, where ‘China’s sense of entitlement to the South China Sea will lead to future clashes’.
Television imagery released by China showed a J-11 fighter taxiing into a climate-controlled hangar on Woody Island, as well as flight operations from the island’s 3,000m runway. J-11s have been located there before – in 2016 and in April this year – but the PLA never acknowledged those deployments.
A Global Times report said ‘the thermo-stabilised [climate-controlled] hangar boosts the jet fighters’ durability and resistance to the island’s humidity and high temperatures,’ thus making longer-term deployments possible.
Other reclaimed islands in the contested Spratly Islands have similar hangars, suggesting that the PLA may follow this same blueprint of periodic rotational deployments to its island bases.
Longer-term deployments of aircraft may occur in the future, but the hot, humid and salt-laden environment of the Spratlys and Paracels mitigates against it. The greater anti-corrosion characteristics of PLANAF aircraft may make them more suitable to such future deployments, though.
Hayton predicted that stability in the South China Sea comes down to Beijing’s choice – will it be a good neighbour or a pain in the neck? Beijing could invade any territory in the South China Sea within a couple of days, and it can use its economic weight to bully smaller nations.
Li Mingjiang, coordinator of the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, said it must be remembered that military capabilities generally shape strategic intentions. Clearly the PLA is growing greatly in capability and it has already achieved local superiority in the South China Sea.
The key and only driver, then, is China’s strategic intentions, Li insisted. If, for instance, Beijing seeks to turn the sea into the ‘South China Lake’, then tensions will inevitably escalate.