China Unlikely to Announce ADIZ in South China Sea

– Analysis –
By Han Xaio, Guest Blog / New Voices
Han Xaio (hanxiao19900308@hotmail.com) Earned a Bachelor of Law in International Politics from Shanghai International Studies University in 2012, and an MA in International Relations from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University in 2013

After China announced the East China Sea (ECS) Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) on Nov.23, 2013, there has been speculation that China may do the same thing in the South China Sea. However, I argue that China will not repeat the ECS ADIZ announcement due to the lack of military capacity, the lack of necessity and the need to present a friendly image to Southeast Asian countries.

The first reason is the lack of air force capability to enforce an SCS ADIZ. After two-decades of modernization, the PLA is able to operate weeks-long military exercises in the South China Sea, but that does not mean that the PLA has the capacity for day-to-day military surveillance on all the aviation actions in the whole region. The rocks and islands scattered in the South China Sea are not big enough for large air force bases and radar stations to cover 2.1 million square kilometers within the nine-dash line, so the PLA must rely on land bases in Hainan, Guangdong and Guangxi.
The James Shoal is an example of this point. It is at the southernmost point of China’s territorial claims. The James Shoal is about 1,900 km (1,100 miles) away from Guangdong. The PLA’s most advanced fighters are the J-10 and J-11. The maximum estimation for J-10’s combat radius is 1250 km, and 1500 km for J-11. In that case, neither these fighters can cover all these regions. If the air force needs to deploy the early-warning planes, these planes have to start from Shuofang Airport and fly all the way down to the South China Sea. They will also face the coordination problem between Nanjing and Guangzhou military regions. However, Diaoyu Dao/Senkaku Islands are about 358 km away from Wenzhou, so the air forces in Nanjing Military Region can enforce East China Sea ADIZ.

The second reason is the lack of necessity. First, the level of military threat is low. It is estimated that the air force in Guangzhou Military Region has about three fighter divisions equipped with Su-27, Su-30 and J-10 aircraft. Vietnam has about 30,000 personals and three fighter divisions, equipped with mainly second generation jet fighters and some Su-27 and Su-30. The Philippines air force has about 17,000 active personal with old and backward fighters. In addition, China’s law enforcement agency has larger ships than the Philippines navy. In that case, China does not face a real military threat from Southeast Asia countries. However, in the East China Sea, at least in 2005 and 2010, there were two confrontations between the Chinese and Japanese navies. After the 2010 Diaoyu Dao/Senkaku boat collision incident and the nationalization of the islands in 2012, there have been more reports on aircraft and warship confrontations. For instance, Chinese and Japanese warships targeted each other twice last January. In these cases, there is a real possibility that any mistake can escalate tensions and cause armed conflict.
Another reason for the lack of necessity is that foreign military deployments provide early-warning time for China. The only military threat China is facing in the South China Sea is U.S. navy. If U.S. plans to attack China, the most likely base will be the Subic Bay. To prepare for this attack, U.S. has to deploy one to two aircraft carrier battle groups to that base first, then travel for several hundred km to approach China’s military bases in Hainan and Guangdong. The battle groups provide visible political signals and military targets to follow.

The last reason is the need to present a friendly image to Southeast Asian states. Doing so serves three purposes: the first is to avoid a military alliance against China. The current policy is to strengthen the control by law enforcement force, and this policy works well now. An ADIZ will be too provocative to stimulate closer cooperation among Southeast Asia countries. A related purpose is to keep United States away from the issue. In order to avoid increased U.S. attention, deployments and intervention, China should not provide incentives. The third reason to maintain a positive image toward the region is to improve peripheral diplomacy. In the past decades, China’s foreign policy guidelines about the region noted the “amicable, tranquil and prosperous neighborhood.” There is no signal yet that China wants to change that. The last point is the need for economic cooperation. Prime Minister Li Keqiang reemphasized that China wanted to push forward the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RECP) negotiation at the Boao Asia Forum early this month. China is also pushing forward the policy of “the maritime silk road” to enhance the cultural, social and economic ties with the neighboring countries. For those ties to flourish, China needs to show its sincere peaceful posture to these neighboring countries. In this environment, for China to announce an ADIZ for the South China Sea would undermine these diplomatic and economic efforts.

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