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A China Air Defense Identification Zone In The South China Sea: Alarmists Are At It Again – Analysis

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Recently supposedly objective analysts have been sounding the alarm that China may declare an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea. According to some, this would be destabilizing and a game changer. But this is not necessarily so.

A good example of this hyperbole is Alexander Vuving’s “Will China Set Up an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea?” https://nationalinterest.org/feature/will-china-set-air-defense-identification-zone-south-china-sea-160896?page=0%2C2

This piece has several prescient insights. But they are embedded in a web of ‘China threat’ bias.

I will focus first on the pearls because they are far and few between.

One important insight is that “The questions for China in the South China Sea – – are “what utility it wants to get from an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and the timing.”  Another is that the timing may be influenced by the ‘perfect storm’ of the corona – caused distraction and reduction in flight frequency as well as  the need to change the status quo before agreement on a Code of Conduct freezes it.  As Vuving observers this may in turn provide incentive to ASEAN to complete the negotiations even if the resultant Code is weak and non binding.   As Vuving says the possibility of declaring an ADIZ “can serve as a threat to deter others.”  But this would apply to its rivals as well and the possibility that they may declare rival ADIZ’s in retaliation.

Unfortunately these pearls are wrapped in a biased blanket of inaccuracies and false assumptions that render them hard to find and thus less useful.

Vuving assumes that a China ADIZ would be highly disruptive to civilian air traffic.  This was not the case with the China-declared ADIZ in the East China Sea.  Why should one in the South China Sea necessarily be any different?

He says that “an ADIZ would provide convenient legal ground” for China’s deployment of early warning and control aircraft as well as aerial subhunters.   But China and other claimants do not need legal grounds to deploy such to high tide features they claim and occupy.  Moreover China has already done so.

Vuving’s postulated package of counter tactics by its rivals is mostly unrealistic.  Malaysia certainly – and Vietnam probably – are unlikely to “sue Beijing” for its unilateral activities in their exclusive economic zones.”  China’s political and economic leverage is just too great. https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/opinion/article/3087640/malaysia-cautious-over-us-role-disputed-south-china-sea 

The same goes for Vietnam and the post-Duterte Philippines granting US military regular access to their strategic ports.  That could well be a political/economic ‘red-line’ for China and they are unlikely to do so.

An ADIZ and military warning or exclusion zones are different.  China’s warnings to military aircraft to “stay away” from its bases on its occupied features is common practice used by others including the U.S. https://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/publications/atpubs/aip_html/part2_enr_section_5.1.html  

Indeed the U.S. declares warning areas in airspace over domestic or international  waters that “contains activity that may be hazardous to nonparticipating aircraft.” In fact the U.S. even establishes such zones over its exercises and warships while underwayhttps://dnnlgwick.blob.core.windows.net/portals/0/NWCDepartments/Stockton%20Center%20International%20Law/2013-Zones-Manual.pdf?sr=b&si=DNNFileManagerPolicy&sig=sWrSUKeqZaEKhaVvWPx0bCSByt6FQnC6k3YHkszLx9I%3Dhttps://news.usni.org/2020/05/21/navy-issues-iran-warning-to-keep-away-from-warships

Vuving does not appreciate the strategic value to China of its occupied features.  In China’s view, the installations on its occupied islands are important to its continued existence.  The South China Sea provides relative ‘sanctuary’ for its second strike nuclear submarines that are its insurance against a first strike– something that the U.S.—unlike China–has not disavowed.   Some of the hundreds of US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) probes each year in China’s near waters focus on detecting, tracking and potential targeting of China’s nuclear submarines. Given what it perceives to be the growing US threat to its nuclear submarines, China is building up capabilities on some of the features it occupies to neutralize US ISR and thus enhance the survivability of its nuclear submarines in the early stages of a conflict.  China’s assets may even be able to detect and thus neutralize US submarines. https://warontherocks.com/2020/01/the-conventional-wisdom-on-chinas-island-bases-is-dangerously-wrong/

Vuving says that China’s ADIZ in the East China Sea is an “exclusion zone” because it provides “a legal basis for denying foreign aircraft access.”  China’s ADIZ declaration does contain a controversial requirement of prior notification for foreign aircraft entering the ADIZ even if they are only transiting it and not destined for China’s territorial airspace, and a vague reference to “defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate.” 

But it is not in practice an exclusion zone.  China argues that its East China Sea ADIZ rules do not affect normal commercial traffic and that they do not interfere with freedom of over flight.  Moreover, Japan does not recognize it – – and neither does the U.S. for military aircraft—and they have kinetically challenged it with impunity   China has only monitored and observed foreign military aircraft flying unannounced in its ADIZ —following the same practice as the U.S. and Japan.  The same may apply to a China ADIZ for the South China Sea.

Vuving suggests that China’s declaration of an ADIZ over the Senkaku/Diaoyu features has strengthened its claim against that of Japan.  But if it has, that is what Japan’s ADIZ declaration also accomplished and China simply retaliated.

Vuving’s assertion that “an ADIZ can serve as a sovereignty marker” is dangerous.   No country has attempted to make that linkage. China has said that an ADIZ is not “territorial air space” and “has nothing to do with maritime and air jurisdiction”. https://thediplomat.com/2013/12/china-is-surprisingly-ok-with-south-koreas-new-adiz/   The U.S. ADIZ extends to 200 nautical miles from its mainland coast but it surely is not claiming sovereignty over the air or ocean space encompassed by it. 

He also says an ADIZ declared “in violation of international law” may signal strength.  But there is no international law governing ADIZs. Their establishment and implementation have always been unilateral and controversial. The U.S. established the precedent of an ADIZ and its rules — for itself and Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – – including in parts of the South China and East China Seas — after World War II. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_defense_identification_zone   Vuving and the U.S. think that all other nations’ ADIZs should be based on its model. But there is no international agreement to that effect.

Vuving criticizes China for interfering “with Vietnam’s drilling of  _ _oil and gas wells within Vietnam’s EEZ” and conducting a survey “within the EEZ of Vietnam and Malaysia.” But Vietnam uses an excessive baseline that extends its EEZ and continental shelf in this area further than allowed by UNCLOS. https://2009-2017.state.gov/documents/organization/58573.pdf  Moreover, China may claim an extended continental shelf from the Paracels that could encompass part of the area. This means that China might argue that at least the north eastern portion of Vietnam’s claims in that area is disputed and it is thus demanding that Vietnam have foreign oil companies cease their exploitation activities in the area pending negotiations.

As for China’s ‘depredations’ against Malaysia, the Chinese vessels were exercising their freedom of navigation —the same rationale that the US Navy uses to justify its intimidating maneuvers against China’s claims.  Zubil Mat Som, the head of Malaysia’s Maritime Enforcement Agency said “We do not know its purpose but it is not carrying out any activities against the law”. https://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2020/04/18/chinese-and-malaysian-ships-in-south-china-sea-standoff-near-oil-field  Moreover, the Vietnam- Malaysia joint extended continental shelf claim beyond their EEZs is just that –a claim that has not been certified. 

Vuving suggests several options that China has in terms of the geographic coverage of an ADIZ including the bogyman of one covering its nine-dash line claimed area. But one option he does not consider and which would be more conventional is the declaration of an ADIZ above all high tide features —or at least those it occupies– and their territorial sea.  While this would be troubling to its rival claimants and probably stimulate rival declarations, it would not necessarily be a game changer –especially for the U.S. who defies current Chinese aircraft warning zones over its bases. https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-military/2015/12/19/u-s-says-bombers-didn-t-intend-to-fly-over-china-held-island/https://www.stripes.com/news/pacific/air-force-bombers-fly-over-south-china-sea-in-latest-foray-into-contested-space-1.628017

In sum, to produce useful policy relevant work, analysts need to separate the wheat of objectivity from the chaff of bias—and this and other similar alarmist pieces fail to  do so.

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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