ADIZ stirs fears for South China Sea
By Richard Javad Heydarian
MANILA - China's recent controversial announcement of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) covering disputed island features in the East China Sea has raised concerns in Southeast Asia that Beijing will soon invoke a similar measure for the hotly contested South China Sea.
The ADIZ encompasses the contested leodo/Suyan rock as well as the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, helping to
China on a sharper collision course with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, as well as the United States.
Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, have reportedly been alarmed by China's expressed willingness to "adopt defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate in the identification or refuse to follow the instructions".
China's Defense Ministry's announcement said that it will "establish other air defense identification zones at an appropriate time after completing preparations". To Manila and Hanoi, these statements signal that China intends to eventually adopt an ADIZ over the contested Paracel and Spratly islands and other features in the South China Sea.
Given the lopsided power asymmetry between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors, neither the Philippines nor Vietnam possesses credible indigenous deterrence against China's prospective announcement of an ADIZ in the South China Sea.
Both countries have thus carefully watched the response of Washington and its powerful northeast allies in the East China Sea, hoping that China will re-examine its apparent planned moves in the South China Sea.
"There's this threat that China will control the air space [in the South China Sea] ... It transforms an entire air zone into China's domestic air space," Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario said in response to China's ADIZ announcement. "That is an infringement and compromises the safety of civil aviation ... it also compromises the national security of affected states."
The US, Japan and South Korea have swiftly challenged China's ADIZ. On November 27, Washington dispatched two B-52 bombers from its forward-deployment base in Guam to enter China's unilaterally declared ADIZ without notifying Beijing.
Two days later, Japan sent fighter jets to the area to fend off Chinese patrol ships, while on December 4 South Korea conducted a joint sea and air military drill in the vicinity of the Chinese ADIZ to protest the inclusion of the contested leodo/Suyan rock.
The concerted challenge coincided with the visit of US Vice President Joe Biden to the region, where he met leaders in Tokyo, Beijing, and Seoul. "China's recent and sudden announcement of the establishment of a new air defense identification zone has, to state the obvious, caused significant apprehension in the region," Biden declared during his visit to Beijing, contrasting with his earlier expressions of solidarity with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe while in Tokyo.
China, meanwhile, has adamantly asserted that there is no reason for "panic" among its neighbors, arguing that its ADIZ adheres to established international practices. Beijing has contended that a wide range of countries, from India, Japan, Pakistan, Norway, the United Kingdom and the US, maintain their own air identification zones.
"[The ADIZ is] a defensive measure and in line with international common practices," Chinese air force spokesperson Shen Jinke stated, emphasizing his country's sovereign right to protect its airspace. "China's air force is on high alert and will take measures to deal with diverse air threats to firmly protect the security of the country's airspace."
China has sought to avoid further embarrassment of the open and unpunished defiance of its ADIZ by dispatching its own jet fighters to the area and reiterating the legal legitimacy of the new imposed measure.
Some analysts believe Beijing could soon move to impose an ADIZ in the South China Sea to underline the rationale of its claim. China's ADIZ is viewed by some commentators as an extension of its broad "cabbage strategy" to exert control over adjacent waters, combining new regulations and increased military maneuvers to consolidate its claims over contested features in the Western Pacific.
China's decision to include disputed territories in the East China Sea under its ADIZ, and the issuance of an explicit threat against uncooperative foreign aircraft, is a reflection of its rising territorial assertiveness. All ADIZs around the world only apply to civilian aircraft, with the US limiting its application to civilian aircrafts bound for US territory.
Many Southeast Asian states had earlier pinned hopes on a new era of constructive relations under Xi's leadership. For leading Filipino officials, this year has instead seen an escalation in territorial tensions, with the Xi administration more vigorously stepping up its claims, expanding military maneuvers in contested waters and leveraging its economic heft in a bid to sideline the US and Japan in the region.
Widely viewed as China's most charismatic leader since Deng Xiaoping, President Xi Jinping has more explicitly sought to reward regional allies with multi-billion trade and investment deals while isolating more recalcitrant Southeast Asian claimants such as the Philippines, which has expanded its military relations with Washington and Tokyo and openly challenged Beijing's territorial claims at The Hague.
Shortly before the ADIZ announcement, Xi's administration established a new State Security Committee, an overarching decision-making body tasked with handling foreign policy and national security issues. China's leaders previously handled such issues through a fragmented institutional arrangement, involving so-called Leading Small Groups on Foreign Affairs and National Security as well as the Central Military Commission.
Now with a streamlined decision-making process, Xi is personally directing all key decisions in the East and South China Seas. To his critics, Xi's close relations with the military and his "China Dream" motto signals a considerably more assertive stance in regional affairs and territorial issues, with the ADIZ announcement a reflection of this new trend.
In response, Japan and its Southeast Asian allies, most notably the Philippines and Vietnam, have fortified bilateral ties, hedging against a potential escalation in territorial disputes. Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are drafting a joint statement to express concern over any "threat" to international civilian aviation. The draft statement, which reaffirms the common positions of Southeast Asian nations and Japan on "maritime security" and "freedom of navigation" in international waters, will be presented at the upcoming Japan-ASEAN summit in Tokyo.
There are no signs so far that China will back down from its new regulations. Indeed, the Xi administration seems determined to stand up to external powers and assert China's national security and territorial interests. The Philippines and Vietnam, on the other hand, hope that the widespread criticism of China's ADIZ will deter the imposition of a similar measure in the South China Sea. Otherwise, they will have to hope Washington and Tokyo launch similar challenges to any southern extension of China's new aerial ambitions.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on the South China Sea and international security issues. He is a lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University's Department of Political Science, and the author of the upcoming book How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and the Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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