07.04.2016 Author: Vladimir Terehov

On the Chinese “air defense identification zone” in the SCS

4534534544Since mid-February this year, the abbreviation ADIZ has once again been appearing on the front pages with increasingly frequency. “Once again”, because it used to be the focus of attention before, at the turn of 2013-2014 in coverage of the threat of direct military confrontation between the PRC and the alliance of the USA and Japan in the East China Sea (ECS).

This time, the same abbreviation is used within the context of an even more problematic situation in the South China Sea (SCS) formed by the same set of leading regional players.

The matter concerns the so-called “Air Defense Identification Zone” (ADIZ), which China’s Ministry of Defense introduced in 2013 over a considerable part of the ECS, and is now rumored to be planning to do the same over the SCS.

It should be noted that China is not the first country to use an ADIZ in a certain part of air space considered especially sensitive in terms of ensuring national security of a certain country.

In the 1950s, the USA introduced such a zone near its west coast when, according to intelligence data, there was a threat (too exaggerated, as it later turned out) of “the rapidly growing fleet of Soviet bombers.”

Japan has also got its own ADIZ, surrounding all the four main islands as well as the Ryukyu Islands. It should be noted that the Japanese and Chinese zones over the ECS overlap considerably, including the air space over Senkaku/ Diaoyutai islands, the issue of ownership of which is one of the points of tension in Japanese-Chinese relations.

As a rule, an ADIZ extends a considerable distance from the border of the national air space and the country using it cannot limit overfly of foreign aircraft (including military airplanes) in this area. The only condition is that the crews of such aircraft are recommended to notify the land services of the said country in advance of their intention to pass through the ADIZ area.

This zone does not create any special inconveniences for carrier companies but it interferes with the political ambitions of the countries that have complicated relationships with their geopolitical opponent who is introducing the ADIZ.

For instance, in response to the introduction of the Chinese zone over the ECS in late 2013, the USA (deeply involved in all events taking place in Eastern Asia) made loud statements “recommending” that air carriers do not notify Chinese land services and also ignore their requests.

By all appearances, the said “recommendations” did not reach the expected respondents because in the last two years we have never heard of any problems regarding the relations between civilian air carriers and Chinese services for control of air space.

In fact, soon after China introduced the ADIZ over the ECS, two American B-52 bombers crossed the zone demonstratively in radio-silence mode. That is, without responding to requests from Chinese land services. It was an impudent gesture to demonstrate the readiness of the U.S. Air Force to carry out their objectives in this area without observance of requirements set by China’s Defense Ministry that might restrict the U.S. pilots’ freedom of action in any way.

Similar games are now taking place in connection with the abovementioned rumors of the possible introduction of the ADIZ over the SCS. Actually, such suggestions (never officially commented on by Beijing) appeared two years ago in connection with China’s Defense Ministry introducing the ADIZ over the ECS.

China did not officially comment on this possibility until the end of last year. As for Chinese experts, back in summer 2015, the head of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in China, Wu Sichun, categorically denied this possibility at a conference in Washington.

However, the U.S. government evidently had more or less certain information on the topic back in the autumn of last year. For instance, in his speech at a conference in Sydney on 6 October 2015, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift, listed “the impudent actions” of the PRC in the SCS and stated that the emergence of a Chinese ADIZ in the SCS will be seen as “a violation of international rules.

On 26 February this year, S. Swift’s immediate supervisor, the chief of USPACOM, Admiral Harry Harris, expressed his “anxiety that the [possible Chinese ADIZ over the SCS] will have destabilizing and provocative consequences….We will ignore it as well as we ignore the ADIZ in the East Chinese Sea now.

At the same time, he did not deny the very right of any state to establish such zones in the air space “adjacent to their national territory.” Actually, the same wording is used by Chinese officials when commenting on the increased attention the U.S. is paying to the topic of China’s probable introduction of an ADIZ in the SCS.

The essence of the American-Chinese disagreement in this issue and the growing tension in the relations between the two leading states of the world in the SCS consists in China seeing 80% of the SCS as its national territory. Meanwhile the USA, formally declaring no specific view on this issue, rejects these Chinese demands.

The latest exchange on the topic of (the still hypothetical) Chinese ADIZ over the SCS took place on April 1 this year. It involved official representatives of defense ministries of both countries). The Chinese side declared that the issue of establishing an ADIZ over the SCS “will depend on China’s evaluation of threats in its air space.”

After all, it seems probable that the mutual acerbities in connection both with this topic and with the emergence of new satellite pictures that prove the presence of air defense systems and fighter aircraft on Chinese artificial islands in the SCS, were aired during the meeting between B. Obama and Xi Jinping in Washington within the framework of the summit on nuclear safety.

Vladimir Terekhov, an expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.