ADIZ in the South China Sea: Nine-Dash Line 2.0?

Image: The HMS Daring en route to the Philippines. LA(PHOT) Keith Morgan/MOD.

Beijing might be bluffing.

Ever since China set up its first air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea in November 2013, a Chinese ADIZ has hung as a sword of Damocles over the South China Sea. The same day as China’s Ministry of Defense announced the establishment of the East China Sea ADIZ, the ministry’s spokesman proclaimed, “China will establish other air defense identification zones at an appropriate time after completing preparations.” Since then, official statements by both China’s Ministry of National Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs have never ruled out the possibility of a South China Sea ADIZ, saying consistently that setting up such an ADIZ is the right of China as a sovereign state. Adding to this suggestion, sources close to the Chinese military occasionally told foreign journalists that China had plans and was ready to impose an ADIZ in the South China Sea. In early 2016, Navy Senior Colonel Liang Fang, a renowned strategist in the National Defense University, publicly urged the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to declare an ADIZ in the South China Sea. All these announcements might be deliberate efforts to bluff China’s rivals, but the possibility of a Chinese ADIZ in the South China Sea in real.

Will China set up a South China Sea ADIZ? If it does, when will it do so, and with what size and scope? These questions have been raised numerous times since November 2013. A South China Sea ADIZ was again a hot issue following a remark by China’s Vice Foreign Minister in relation to the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s South China Sea ruling. How do you predict what the South China Sea ADIZ? This article will help both readers who want to make informed judgments about others’ predictions and readers who want to make informed predictions themselves to think systematically about the subject.

Will China Set Up an ADIZ in the South China Sea?

The South China Sea ADIZ is a dog that hasn’t barked, but it can turn out to be one of three animals.

First, it can be a dog that will eventually bark. Most observers believe that China’s declaration of an ADIZ in the South China Sea is just a matter of time. Two reasons are paramount to support this belief. First, China’s official statements suggest that it already has plans for the South China Sea ADIZ that are to be executed when time is ripe.

Second, the facilities that China is building on the disputed islands in the South China Sea are too large for the need of the local communities. Some of these facilities include four three thousand-meter-long runways on Woody Island, Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef and a high-frequency radar station on Cuarteron Reef. China has also deployed to Woody Island long-range surface-to-air missiles that can reach two-hundred kilometers. In the eyes of many experts, the most logical application of these infrastructure and weapons systems is to support an ADIZ in the future.

But the South China Sea ADIZ can also be a dog that never barks. Even if China already has a plan to set it up, the time may never be ripe for a formal declaration. At least four arguments can be brought up to support this possibility.

First, “China may have learned from its East China Sea ADIZ that this particular game is not worth the candle.” As David Welch explains, “Declaring a South China Sea ADIZ would seriously undermine Chinese interests, aviation safety and international confidence in Beijing’s judgment. Very likely it would prompt other claimant states to declare overlapping ADIZs of their own.” However, some other experts doubt whether China has really learnt the lessons of the East China Sea ADIZ this way. In retrospect to China’s East China Sea ADIZ, Zhu Feng argues that the benefits it brings have outweighed the risks.

Second, an ADIZ may undermine the ambiguous nature of China’s claims in the South China Sea. Ambiguity has arguably served China’s interests well, so China will have to think twice before it imposes an ADIZ in the South China Sea.