China officially floated the notion that it might set up an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over its land reclamation projects over the South China Sea. An ADIZ is an area within which foreign aircraft are required to respond to the controlling country’s radio requests for identification, and usually failure to do so leads to an intercept. This could spark tensions with the U.S. and countries around the region which claim the right to fly over the South China Sea, through which an estimated $5 trillion plus in global trade passes each year, without China’s consent or interference.
China’s director of boundaries and oceanic affairs for the foreign ministry told a Chinese newspaper that “China has the right to establish ADIZs. Whether or not China will establish a South China Sea ADIZ will depend on factors such as whether China’s air safety is under threat, and the seriousness of the threat.”
Some analysts characterized this announcement as a tit-for-tat response to U.S. escalation in the region—most notably the recent overflight of China’s freshly reclaimed islands. The Financial Times:
“This is probably them saying ‘if you’re going to carry on doing that, then we’re going to push forward this plan — now we might actually do it’,” [Gary Li, an independent expert on international security matters in Beijing] said.
That analysis is not wholly correct. Not only is this not the first time China had talked about an ADIZ over its outposts, it was reportedly the Pentagon’s assessment that China was moving quickly in this direction anyway that prompted them to consider sending in planes and ships in the first place. Reuters last week:
While the navy didn’t mention China’s rapid land reclamation in the Spratlys, the ship’s actions were a demonstration of U.S. capabilities in the event Beijing declares an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the area – a move experts and some U.S. military officials see as increasingly likely.
“It’s not inevitable but if we are betting paychecks I’ll bet that they will eventually declare one, I just don’t know when,” said a senior U.S. commander familiar with the situation in Asia.
The United States and Japan have been roundly ignoring China’s declared ADIZ in the East China Sea for well over a year now, and there’s little reason to believe that this time it will be any different. The chances for a miscalculation or an accidental standoff have certainly gone up, however.