China Prepares Air Defense Identification Zone in South China Sea, Sources Say

Conflict in the South China Sea continues to rise as China prepares an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the region, sources close to the People’s Liberation Army say.

Some of you – definitely including myself – may be wondering “what the heck is an air defense identification zone??”  Well, here it is: ADIZ is airspace over land or water in which location, identification, and control of civil aircraft (non-military aviation, that is) is operated in the name of national security. Essentially, it’s a maneuver to over-extend a nation’s control of airspace by saying it is in the interest of “national security.” I hope that clears up some confusion.

China implemented a similar ADIZ only two years ago in the East China Sea.

South China Morning Post reports that one source asserted that the timing of any official declaration of the defense system depends largely on the security conditions in the region, particularly the U.S.’s military presence and recent strengthening of diplomatic ties with surrounding countries, both of which pose threat to China’s reach in the area.

“If the U.S. 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 source said.

This news was revealed just ahead of a high-profile 3-day security forum in Singapore. The Shangri-la Dialogue, as it is called, is attended by defense leaders from a variety of countries, including Admiral Sun ­Jianguo and United States Secretary of ­Defense Ash Carter. The contentious situation in the South China Sea is set to head the agenda for the talks, which begin Friday.

China’s defense ministry responded to the South China Morning Post about the zone with a written statement, saying it was “the right of a sovereign state” to designate an ADIZ.

“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 read.

Tensions have continuously risen this year in the South China Sea, as China and its neighbors Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines all lay claim to the set of islands, coral reefs, and lagoons situated in waters rich with fish as well as potential gas and oil preserves – highly prized and advantageous territory indeed.

A recent report in Kanwa Defense Review, a specialized military affairs magazine based in Canada, stated that the Chinese government has defined the area of the ADIZ in the South China Sea and that their decision of when to announce would be a political one.

The new ADIZ would be based on the exclusive economic zone of Woody Island (the largest of the Paracel Islands smack in the middle of the South China Sea) as well as China’s set of seven new artificial islands in Spratly Chain.

Since I am untrained in international security terminology, I yet again had to do my homework. And I did. An exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, is a sea zone which is sanctioned by the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea over which a state has special rights for exploring and and using marine resources (i.e. energy from water and wind). The area extends seaward to a distance of no more than 200 nautical miles (roughly 230 miles) from its coastal baseline. Interestingly enough, an EEZ only refers to the country’s rights below the surface of the sea; the waters seen from above – say, on a map or from a helicopter – are actually international waters.

Back to the topic at hand, China’s preparation of an ADIZ. Editor-in-Chief of the Kanwa Defense Review Andrei Chang said, “China’s new ADIZ will overlap with the EEZs of Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia, which are also planning their own ADIZs – with U.S. backing – if China ­announced it.”

Shanghai-based military commentator Ni Lexiong said China’s seven artificial islands had laid the foundation for the nation to establish the ADIZ in the South China Sea.

However, naval expert Li Jie offers a different view. He said there were signs that regional tensions would actually ease up after Rodrigo Duterte took office as President of the Philippines.

In a bureaucratic move, Chinese President Xi Jinping extended a congratulatory message to Duterte Monday, saying China hoped “the two sides can work together to bring bilateral relations back on a healthy track.”

With the revelation that China is ready to impose an ADIZ, Xi’s statement seems like a futile effort – but let’s hope there is some substance to his claim.