In a potential geopolitical tit-for-tat, some analysts warn Beijing may soon declare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, should the U.S. go ahead with plans to conduct a freedom of navigation exercise announced for April. Beijing already has one ADIZ in the East China Sea, announced in November 2013, which covers islands controlled by Japan yet are claimed by China. The new ADIZ would presumably cover a large area of the South China Sea, to possibly include the airspace over islands disputed among Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
At a regular press conference held by Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei on April 1, Lei was not joking (April Fools Day officially “does not conform with our nation’s cultural traditions, nor does it conform with the core values of socialism”) when he declared “It is China’s right to set up an ADIZ. It has nothing to do with disputes over territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests. Whether to set up a South China Sea ADIZ or not depends on whether China’s airspace security is under threat or not, how severe the threat is, coupled with other factors.”
Lei is correct in stating it is the right of any nation to set up an ADIZ, as there is no international law prohibiting countries establishing an ADIZ in air space adjacent to their territory. The U.S. was the first nation to establish an ADIZ in 1950, following the outbreak of the Korean War. Canada, India, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and Taiwan are among the 20 countries maintaining ADIZs.
What Lei didn’t mention is, given no international law governing ADIZs, aircraft passing through any country’s ADIZ have no obligation to identify themselves or otherwise comply with any ADIZ procedures. The U.S. military, as a matter of policy and security, does not comply with ADIZ procedures of other countries. In addition, Lei failed to mention the ADIZ that Beijing has set up in the East Sea is no ordinary ADIZ – unlike other ADIZ in the region, it overlaps by half the ADIZ of a neighboring country (Japan) and requires identification by both civilian and military aircraft, differing from the normal requirement of only civilian aircraft. The Chinese ADIZ also requires all aircraft, whether they intend to enter Chinese national airspace or not, to identify themselves, while the U.S. exempts aircraft not intending to enter U.S. national airspace.
If Beijing believes its airspace is under threat due to repeated maritime freedom of navigation exercises, it may attempt to restrict airspace freedom of navigation through a establishing a new ADIZ – probably triggering a quick challenge from either U.S. or Australian aircraft. Beijing may then choose to respond by intercepting the foreign aircraft, heightening the risks of miscalculation. In August 2014, some 137 miles from China’s southern island province of Hainan, an armed Chinese fighter jet flew directly under and alongside a US Navy P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft, before conducting a roll over within 45 feet of the P-8. Cool heads prevailed at that time, but another such event and a slight miscalculation may lead to a more serious diplomatic crisis.