Wednesday, November 15, 2017

South China Sea ADIZ: China's approach to ADIZ in theory and practice

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understandings regarding activities undertaken by the respective maritime and air forces when
operating in accordance with international law.”
This series of agreements and addenda appear to clarify specific actions and requirements of
airmen and operators when they encounter the other side. But they still preserve maneuver space
for both sides to interpret the law in accordance with their different national interests and
perspectives on sovereignty and the rule of law. It is in this difference in perception—which
legal agreements can do little to change—that the danger of miscalculation lies.
PRC Pursues Other Policy Options: Reclamation and
Legal and Administrative Moves Lay the Political Groundwork for Expansion
While its reclamation and militarization of claimed features in the SCS have drawn a great
deal of attention since 2014, China laid the groundwork for these activities by making a number
of administrative and bureaucratic moves that were essential to solidifying its claims from the
perspective of China’s state and legal systems. First and foremost among these was elevating
Sansha, the PRC administrative entity that encompasses China’s Spratly and Paracel claims, to a
city-level administrative entity, which was announced on June 21, 2012. While reportedly under
consideration since 2007, China made the move—in perhaps another example of “reactive
assertiveness”—immediately following the passage of a Vietnamese law requiring foreign ships
passing through the Spratly and Paracel chains to notify Vietnamese authorities.
Regardless of
its timing, establishing Sansha as a city enabled the Central Military Commission to authorize
the establishment of a Sansha military garrison to be headquartered on Woody Island in the
The command is responsible for “managing the city’s national defense mobilization,
military reserves and carrying out military operations,”
and it is “under the dual leadership of
the Hainan provincial sub-command and the city’s civilian leaders.”
These changes gave China
what it considers its legitimate legal and administrative framework for the dramatic expansion
and militarization of its claims that followed.
Reclamation and Militarization Give PRC Stronger Footing Without ADIZ
China’s dramatic expansion of its claims has been well documented, including adding
thousands of acres of sand to expand what had been miniscule features often barely above water
U.S. Department of Defense, 2014.
Teddy Ng, “Hanoi Hits Back Over New City,”
South China Morning Post Online
, June 23, 2012.
BBC News, “China Approves Military Garrison for Disputed Islands,” July 23, 2012.
Any military operations are theoretical, as the command currently has no subordinate military units.
BBC News, 2012.
at high tide. Its reclamation efforts have enabled the construction of not just three airfields but
also port facilities for coast guard and PLAN vessels, housing for additional troops, and facilities
to support logistics stores. All of this construction has most likely come at great financial cost.
China has justified the expansion of its SCS claims as its sovereign right and has argued that
its militarization of these claims is purely defensive in nature. The PRC’s representatives have
been adamant regarding its claims since it began expanding them in earnest in 2014 and were no
less resolute in early 2016 in defending the PRC’s perspective on militarization, including the
potential for declaring an ADIZ. After meeting then–U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in
January 2016, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “I pointed out to Secretary Kerry that the
[SCS] Islands have historically been China’s territory. China has a right to protect its maritime
sovereign and legal rights and interests.” Wang then justified the PRC’s construction of military
facilities as “some necessary facilities for self-defense.”
In March 2016, then–Deputy Secretary
of Defense Robert Work reiterated the United States’ clear policy position that it would not
recognize an ADIZ in the SCS and that it would view such a move as destabilizing. China’s
defense ministry spokesperson Yang Yujun in turn essentially restated China’s position: that
declaring an ADIZ is a sovereign right and that the decision to establish an ADIZ would be
based on China’s assessment of the existence and degree of aerial threats in a particular area.
In this context, China may have deployed HQ-9 air defense missiles in February 2016 as
what it views as the appropriate response to its threat perceptions; subsequent deployments of at
least two J-11 fighter aircraft and a fire control radar (which means the HQ-9 system is fully
operational) to the Paracel Islands in April 2016 could theoretically be justified on the same
basis—and could even be an expression of Chinese distaste for the recently announced basing
agreement between the Philippines and the United States. Regardless of its justification, China’s
extensive improvements and military deployments to its claims are part of a spiral of military
responses by other parties that make operating in the region more complex and difficult for U.S.
military aircrews. Vietnam, in particular, is acquiring the types of platforms that could challenge,
or at least hold at risk, some key Chinese facilities on the newly expanded claims. The
Vietnamese military has received advanced diesel submarines from Russia and an Israeli-
manufactured system known as CIDS (Coastal and Island Defense System) that combines
intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems and the Global Positioning System with a
Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative
Region, “Central and Wan Chai Reclamation,” March 23,
, “Government’s Ambitious 2030 Land Reclamation Plan to Cost HK$400 Billion, Group Says,”
South China Morning Post
, December 4, 2016.
Jonathan Kaiman, “
U.S. and China
Appear to
Be at an I
mpasse over North Korea and the South China Sea
, January 27, 2016.
Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China, “Defense Ministry’s Regular Press Conference
on Mar. 31,” March 31, 2016.
150-kilometer range missile. This system is accurate against naval vessels within 10 meters.
April 2016, Indonesia announced that it will be deploying five F-16s to the Natuna Islands and
refurbishing a runway and a port
following a confrontation between a Chinese fishing vessel,
Chinese coast guard vessels, and an Indonesian fisheries department task force patrolling to
locate illegal fishing boats.
This comes despite an unusually conciliatory statement in
November 2015, in which Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei publicly announced that
China did not have a claim to the Natuna Islands, which lie outside of China’s ambiguous nine-
dash line.
What If? A Potential SCS ADIZ
The arguments for establishing a SCS ADIZ are fairly straightforward: If Beijing perceives
that the regional security situation and its position of relative strength in the region are eroding, it
may decide that the benefits of declaring an ADIZ outweigh the costs. But those costs would be
steep, not just in terms of China’s short- and middle-term reputation and diplomatic standing but
also because declaring an ADIZ in the SCS would deprive China of its ambiguity regarding its
claims, which it has used to its advantage for years. Depending on what the ADIZ encompassed,
declaring an ADIZ could be perceived as China making a definitive claim to either or both the
Paracel and Spratly Islands.
If China did declare an ADIZ, one that encompassed the PRC’s entire nine-dash line would
be unwieldy. The PRC government could opt for an ADIZ in the SCS that does not overlap with
any contested claims, but that naval aviation elements could patrol much more routinely than
their ECS ADIZ from China’s newly established airfields in the SCS. If PRC officials wanted to
minimize political backlash, then they could create such an ADIZ to the north and east of the
Spratly chain. Alternatively, they could select airspace for an ADIZ that acts as a buffer between
the Philippines and the Paracels; it could be established in airspace to the west of the Bashi
Channel and the Luzon Strait, overlapping both the Taiwan and the Philippine ADIZ. The
PLAAF has made operating in this area a priority. In March 2015, China publicized its first-ever
military drill beyond the Bashi Channel; spokesman Shen Jinke said this was “the first time that
the PLA Air Force conducted such drills in an airspace far offshore from Chinese coastlines.”
Tamir Eshel, “Rocket Systems for Coastal Defense,”
Defense Update
, February 10, 2016.
“Indonesia to Deploy F
-16 F
ighter Jets t
o Guard South China Sea Territory: Defence Minister,”
Straits Times
April 1, 2016.
Ankit Panda, “Indonesia Summons Chinese Ambassador After South China Sea
-Off Near Natuna Islands
The Diplomat
, March 21, 2016.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei’s
Regular Press Conference on November 12, 2015,” November 12, 2015.
AFP, “First Chin
a Air Force Drills in ‘Far Offshore’
March 31, 2015
However, since the ECS ADIZ established the precedent of including disputed territory within
ADIZ boundaries, China could act similarly in the SCS case—for instance, the PRC could
establish an SCS ADIZ that encompasses a single feature of a single competing claimant to “set
an example” for other claimants.
If China were to declare an ADIZ that encompassed contested
claims, it might well opt for an elongated ADIZ that covers both Pratas in the north and
Scarborough to the south (see Figure 3.1). An ADIZ here that did not completely cover the
Paracel or Spratly Islands could sidestep the political fallout from some claimants while singling
out Taiwan and the Philippines. China’s media coverage of such a move would no doubt cast it
as a defensive measure in light of the Philippines’s agreement to allow the United States access
to five Philippine bases—four of which are airfields—as part of the Enhanced Defense
Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the two governments.
PRC officials could publicly
justify such an ADIZ as covering the approaches to the SCS from the bases to which the
Philippines granted access. The media campaign would likely emphasize that U.S. actions had
been so provocative that they changed China’s air threat environment, compelling the PRC
government to take measures to defend its interests. In addition, the perceived threat implied by
freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) by the U.S. Navy would likely be cited as evidence
of intent to “meddle in its internal affairs.” This dynamic would play out much the same way that
China justified its deployment of surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island in February 2016. At
that time, the deployment was portrayed as a response to the U.S. Navy’s FONOP within 12
nautical miles of Triton Island by the guided-missile destroyer USS
Curtis Wilbur
in January
2016—the first such FONOP since the USS
passed near Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands
in October 2015.
For a discussion
of this tactic, sometimes called “killing a chicken to scare the monkey” (
Howard W. French, “China’s Dangerous Game,”
The Atlantic
, November 2014
Armando Heredia, “Analysis: New U
Philippine Basing
Deal Heavy on Air Power, Light on Naval Support,”
, March 22, 2016. President Rodrigo Duterte, who was elected in May 2016, has introduced uncertainty
into the U.S.
-Philippines relationship,
even declaring his “separation” from the United States and alignment with
China during a speech in Beijing in October 2016. Although Duterte has opposed the return of U.S. troops to the
Philippines and threatened to stop EDCA’s planned deployments of U.S.
troops, U.S. and Philippines officials
suggested that EDCA would continue to be implemented
though perhaps at a smaller scale—
as of December
2016. See Yeganah Torbati and David Brunnstrom, “U.S. Has Few Good Options for Response to Philippines’
, October 21, 2016; and Reuters, “Philippines, U.S. Agree to Reduce Joint Military Drills
Philippine General,” November 23, 2016.
Ankit Panda, “Return of the FONOP: US Navy Destroyer Asserts Freedom of Navigation in Paracel Islands,”
, January 31, 2016.
Figure 3.1. A Potential ADIZ in the SCS
Adapted from
BBC News , “Why I
s the South China Sea Contentious?” July 12, 2016.
Used with
permission from the BBC.
From a practical perspective, unlike in the ECS, where China faces Japan’s more formidable
military, China is far more capable of patrolling such an ADIZ than the Philippine Air Force; as
a result, Beijing is likely quite confident of its ability to compete in the air over the SCS. Unlike
in the ECS, China’s three airbases are capable of supporting both reconnaissance and fighter
aircraft with a combat radius that puts all of the SCS within easy range. For its part, the
Philippine Air Force admits that it is incapable of patrolling its own ADIZ: It strives to be able to
do so by 2022 as part of an ambitious modernization initiative known as Flight Plan 2028.
From a command and control perspective, SCS claim enforcement and militarization has
been predominantly the purview of the PLAN and its aviation units, which simplifies the PRC’s
lines of command and authority. While not necessarily complete or authoritative, open sources
rarely report on PLAAF overwater operations by units based in the former Guangzhou Military
Region (now part of the Southern Theater Command). This reporting typically highlights PLAN
surface, air defense, and aviation units in the SCS. The units that have been responsible for these
duties over the years—the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet and marines, as well as the PLAAF—are
Philippine Air Force,
PAF Flight Plan 2028
, undated.
now all subordinate to the Southern Theater Command, which is responsible for planning for and
managing operational tasks in its assigned region.
How would other states respond to any Chinese ADIZ in the SCS? As in the ECS, China’s
competing regional claimants and the United States are likely to ignore any requirement that
military aircraft file flight plans or notify PRC officials; other interested parties that do not have
any claims in the region, such as Australia, might also see it in their interest to establish their
right to operate freely in any new SCS ADIZ. Indeed, as of February 2016, nearly all Royal
Australian Air Force patrols were being challenged by Chinese radio broadcasts in much the
same manner as U.S. flights. Australian authorities pointed out that the challenge was not a
change and was a normal practice among nations, but that with so many outposts now manned,
“wherever we go on our normal Gateway patrol, we now find that there is an increasing number
of locations where the challenge would occur.”
o Yuandan, Ren Zhong, and Lan Yage, “Focused on the Potential Strategic Threats of Surrounding Areas, the
Reason for Establishing the Five T
heater Commands Is Very Clear,”
, February 2, 2016.
David Wroe,
“RAAF Now Being Routinely Challenged by Beijing in South China Sea,”
Sydney Morning Herald
February 3, 2016.
4. Conclusion
In response to what it viewed as a troublesome change by Japan to the status quo in the
Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, China declared an ECS ADIZ in November 2013 to serve PRC
political and strategic goals, particularly with respect to PRC territorial claims and rights within
its EEZ. By including the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands within the ADIZ and requiring notification
by traversing aircraft not planning to enter Chinese airspace, PRC leaders are arguably
attempting to change behavioral norms to strengthen their claim to the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands.
The U.S. policy response has been to clarify its stance on this territorial dispute, with then–
President Barack Obama specifying that the United States considers the Senkaku (Diaoyu)
Islands covered under Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which specifies that the two
states would act to defend “territories under the administration of Japan.”
While it is unclear if
this response was factored into China’s strategic calculus, including the Senkaku (Diaoyu)
Islands in its ADIZ certainly has not created new normative behaviors that favor China and its
claim there.
Similarly, declaring an ADIZ (or more than one) in the SCS could arguably work against
PRC strategic goals. For one, it would force China to more clearly define its sovereign territory,
instead of using its expansive, all-inclusive nine-dash line. Ambiguity in the SCS has served
China’s interests for decades; clarifying these interests could effectively bound its claims. In
addition, China would not have the advantage of surprise; while the ECS ADIZ declaration took
many off guard, observers are watching the SCS space carefully in anticipation of an ADIZ
declaration there.
Nonetheless, because it is far from certain that China will forgo an ADIZ in the SCS, it is
worth considering why and under what conditions PRC leaders might establish an ADIZ there.
The leadership could decide that U.S. FONOPS, other U.S. surface naval operations, or U.S.
aerial reconnaissance activities had reached a point that necessitated an additional response from
Beijing. Similarly, diplomatic or political-military developments, including changes to the U.S.-
Philippines alliance or growing U.S. rapprochement with Hanoi, might be perceived as
provocative enough to tip the scales in favor of a more robust PRC response. Finally, after
rejecting the July 2016 PCA ruling declaring China’s “nine-dash line” invalid, China appears to
have escalated its improvements to features in the SCS to redefine the “facts on the ground.”
By adding significant defensive capabilities, such as close-in weapon systems, to its reclaimed
Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States of America and Japan, Washington,
January 19, 1960
Permanent Court of Arbitration, 2016.
features in the Spratlys, China hopes to strengthen its sovereignty claims and push other
claimants to accommodate Chinese power and authority.
This, then, is the environment ripe for
an ADIZ declaration: One in which China feels compelled to establish an ADIZ to “respond” to
what it terms aggressive or destabilizing actions by others—be it its neighbors, an international
body like the PCA, or the United States.
Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, “China’s New Spratly Island Defenses,” December 13, 2016.
AFP, “First China Air Force Drills in ‘Far Offshore’ Pacific,” March 31, 2015. As of April 11,
Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, “China’s New Spratly Island Defenses,” December 13,
2016. As of July 10, 2017:
“Background: Air Defense Identification Zones,”
Global Times
, November 24, 2013. As of April
13, 2016:
BBC News, “China Approves Military Garrison for Disputed Islands,” July 23, 2012. As of
April 13, 2016:
———, “Why Is the South China Sea Contentious?” July 12, 2016. As of July 18, 2017:
Brown, Sophie, “Stop Spy Flights, China Warns the U.S.,”
, August 29, 2014. As of
April 14, 2016:
Byman, Daniel, “The Foreign Policy Essay: Oriana Skylar Mastro on ‘China’s ADIZ—A
Successful Test of U.S. Resolve?’”
December 15, 2013. As of April 13, 2016:
Cheng, Dean, “Winning Without Fighting: Chinese Legal Warfare,”
Heritage Foundation
May 21, 2012. As of April 13, 2016:
Clinton, Hillary Rodham, “Remarks with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida After Their
Meeting,” January 18, 2013. As of April 13, 2016:
Davies, Kirk L., Eric M. Johnson, Laura C. Desio, Sam C. Kidd, and Thomasa T. Paul,
Air Force
Operations and the Law
, 3rd ed., Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.: Judge Advocate General’s
School, 2014. As of July 25, 2016:
Eshel, Tamir, “Rocket Systems for Coastal Defense,” Defense Update, February 10, 2016. As of
April 13, 2016:
Federal Aviation Administration, “Entering, Exiting and Flying in United States Airspace,” web
page, October 23, 2015. As of April 4, 2016:
French, Howard W., “China’s Dangerous Game,”
The Atlantic
, November 2014. As of April 14,
Garamone, Jim, “Pace Visits Chinese Air Base, Checks Out Su-27 Fighter-Bomber,”
Forces Press Service
, 24 March 2007. As of October 24, 2016:
Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, “Central and Wan Chai
Reclamation,” March 23, 2012. As of July 19, 2017:
Heredia, Armando, “Analysis: New U.S.-Philippine Basing Deal Heavy on Air Power, Light on
Naval Support,”
, March 22, 2016. As of April 11, 2016:
International Civil Aviation Organization.
“Indonesia to Deploy F-16 Fighter Jets to Guard South China Sea Territory: Defence Minister,”
Straits Times
, April 1, 2016. As of April 13, 2016:
“Islands Apart,”
The Economist
, September 15, 2012. As of October 24, 2016:
International Civil Aviation Organization, “The Second Meeting of South China Sea Major
Traffic Flow Review Group,” July 22–24, 2015. As of April 13, 2016:
International Crisis Group, “Dangerous Waters: China-Japan Relations on the Rocks,”
, No. 245, April 8, 2013. As of July 7, 2017:

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