Beijing’s plans for South China Sea air defence identification zone cover Pratas, Paracel and Spratly islands: PLA source

US military aircraft, including RC-135U reconnaissance planes (pictured), conducted at least nine sorties and patrol operations over the South China Sea in April. Photo: Handout. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

HONG KONG, Jun 1, 2020, SCMP. Beijing has been making plans for an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea since 2010, the same year it said it was considering the introduction of similar airspace controls over the East China Sea in a move that was widely criticised around the world, a military insider said, South China Morning Post reported.

The proposed ADIZ encompasses the Pratas, Paracel and Spratly island chains in the disputed waterway, according to a source from the People’s Liberation Army, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The plans for the zone were as old as those for the East China Sea ADIZ – which Beijing said it was considering in 2010 and introduced in 2013 – the source said, adding that Chinese authorities were waiting for the right time to announce them.

While Beijing might have been reticent on the subject, Taiwan’s defence ministry said on May 4 that it was aware of the mainland’s plans.

An air defence identification zone is airspace over a typically undisputed area of land or water in which the monitoring and control of aircraft is performed in the interests of national security. While many countries have them, the concept is not defined or regulated by any international treaty or agency.

Military observers said the announcement of China’s second ADIZ would add to its tensions with the United States and could cause irreparable damage to its relations with its Southeast Asian neighbours.

Lu Li-Shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung, said that the construction and development of artificial islands – particularly the airstrips and radar systems built on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs – that had been ongoing for the past several years was all part of Beijing’s ADIZ plan.

“Recent satellite images show that the People’s Liberation Army has deployed KJ-500 airborne early-warning and control aircraft and KQ-200 anti-submarine patrol planes at Fiery Cross Reef,” he said, referring to pictures taken by Israel’s ImageSat International and the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank.

It was also clear that air-conditioned facilities were under construction on the reef, suggesting that fighter jets – which need to be protected from the high temperatures, humidity and salinity in the region – would soon be deployed there too, Lu said.

“Once the PLA’s fighter jets arrive they can join the early-warning and anti-submarine aircraft in conducting ADIZ patrol operations.”

Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert and retired PLA senior colonel, said that countries normally waited to announce the establishment of an ADIZ until they had the necessary detection equipment, combat capabilities and other infrastructure in place to manage it.

But if there was an opportune time, Beijing might make the announcement sooner, he said.

“Beijing declared the ADIZ in the East China Sea even though the PLA was still incapable of detecting, tracking and expelling intrusive foreign aircraft,” he said.

Another Chinese military source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that as well as the preparedness issue, Beijing was aware that the South China Sea was much larger than the East China Sea and would therefore require far resources to patrol.

“Beijing has been hesitant to declare the ADIZ in the South China Sea due to a number of technical, political and diplomatic considerations,” he said.

“But the most practical problem is that the PLA has in the past not had the capability to scramble its fighter jets to expel intrusive foreign aircraft in the South China Sea, which is several times the size of the East China Sea, and the cost to support the ADIZ would be huge.”

It was in 2010 that Chinese authorities told a Japanese delegation visiting Beijing that they were considering establishing the East China Sea ADIZ. According to a 2017 report by the CSIS, Beijing said the matter required discussion as its plans overlapped with Japan’s air defence zone.

The news angered Tokyo, which responded by establishing an ADIZ of its own, encompassing the Senkaku Islands – known as Diaoyu in Mandarin – a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are claimed by Japan, mainland China and Taiwan.

Tensions between Tokyo and Beijing escalated after the former bought the Senkakus from a private owner in September 2012, prompting Beijing to announce its ADIZ in November of the following year.

“China announced the first ADIZ earlier than planned because of the need to assert its sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands,” Li said.

But the move was met with a backlash, with both Japan and the United States denouncing it.

While relations between Japan and China have improved in recent years, tensions between Beijing and Washington have been steadily rising, with the two sides clashing on multiple fronts – from trade and technology, to military and ideological issues.

Their relationship has come under further pressure as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, with senior officials trading accusations and insults over their respective handling of the health crisis and the possible origins of the deadly coronavirus.

Last month, US military aircraft, including EP-3E and RC-135U reconnaissance planes, conducted at least nine sorties and patrol operations over the South China Sea, according to the aviation tracking website Aircraft Spots.

While Beijing regards almost all of the sea as its sovereign territory, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have conflicting claims.

China has sought to build closer ties with its Southeast Asian neighbours in recent years, but Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, said it risked jeopardising them if it announced a South China Sea ADIZ.

“Such a declaration would severely damage China’s relations with Southeast Asian states, which until now have largely acquiesced to China’s assertiveness and provocations, including land reclamation and militarisation of features,” he said.

“But should China declare an ADIZ, they would be forced to choose, not between the US and China, but between their economic relationship with China and their own sovereignty.

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