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U.S. Warns China Against an Exclusion Zone

U.S. Warns China Against an Exclusion Zone

Beijing’s designated Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, announced in November 2013 (The Economist)

On Wednesday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work warned Beijing against declaring an exclusion zone in the South China Sea, calling any potential announcement as “destabilizing,” and vowing the United States would not recognize such a zone.  Deputy Secretary Work added, “We would prefer that all of the claims in the South China Sea be handled through mediation and not force or coercion.”

U.S. officials are increasingly concerned Beijing may soon announce a long-rumored Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) for the South China Sea, as they did in the East China Sea in 2013 (see above).  The fear in Washington is Beijing will be prompted to declare the ADIZ should China lose an upcoming international court case.  The court case was filed by the Philippines against overlapping maritime territorial claims by Beijing in the South China Sea.  The international court is expected to rule on the case in late May or early June.  

Recent months have seen a more belligerent Beijing angering a number of its neighbors by deploying surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island, reclaiming land to bolster its claims to disputed reefs, harassing Vietnamese fishing boats, and ramming an Indonesian patrol ship, all in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.  

In its “pivot to Asia”, Washington has at times seemed reactive, rather than proactive, in countering aggressive actions by Beijing.  In early March, after the discovery of China’s deployment of surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island, which is claimed by Vietnam, the U.S. sailed an aircraft carrier, two destroyers, two cruisers, and the command ship of the Japan-based 7th Fleet into nearby waters.  Prior to that, on January 30, the destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur conducted a similar patrol around Triton Island, part of the Paracel Islands chain that is claimed by Beijing. The patrol was in response to China’s confirmation of a civilian plane test flight that landed on an artificial island built in the Spratlys, marking the first time Beijing has used a runway in the area.

While Washington cited the sailing as one of a series of “freedom of navigation” exercises, Beijing views all of the patrols as a show of force, and accuses the United States of militarizing the South China Sea.  Beijing has admitted to its own militarization of the South China Sea, after Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying tried to reason that her country’s South China Sea military deployments were no different from U.S. deployments on Hawaii, despite no other country having a claim on Hawaii.

The proactive statement from Deputy Secretary Work came immediately before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington for a nuclear summit and his private talks with President Obama in Washington on Thursday.  The warning to Beijing that the U.S. will not recognize any future declaration of a South China Sea exclusion zone is a clarifying line in the sand. Washington has made it clear how they will react, if we go by previous “freedom of navigation” exercises and the testimony last month of Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, before the House Armed Services Committee in Washington.  Admiral Harris proclaimed, “We’ll fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”

While Beijing has been duly notified any announcement of an ADIZ in the South China Sea will not be recognized and will likely be quickly violated, Beijing issued a warning of its own on Thursday.  When questioned concerning a recent report on U.S. patrols in waters Beijing claims as its own, defense ministry spokesman Yang Yujun responded: “As for the US ships which came, I can only suggest they be careful”.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. [email protected]