U.S. and international security experts have expressed concerns that it may just be a matter of time before China establishes an air defense identification zone over disputed waters in the South China Sea.
China has been rapidly reclaiming land and making artificial islands in the South China Sea during the past year, causing strong reaction in the U.S. and many other countries.
Senator John McCain, chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, said island building is just the beginning.
McCain said the next step for China will be to militarize those islands and declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea to further its sovereignty claims.
“They build runways; they are going to put weapons there, and the next thing you will see the Chinese do is when an American aircraft [flies by], whether being a commercial craft or what, they will say ‘identify yourself’ – establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone, which then means territorial sovereignty,” McCain said last week at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
An Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) is airspace over land or water where the country establishing the zone asks an incoming aircraft to identify itself and have control over its flight path in the interest of national security. A zone extends beyond a country's airspace to give the country more time to respond to possibly hostile aircraft.
South Korea and Japan have set up ADIZs that extend well beyond their territorial airspace and overlap others. China established an ADIZ over the East China Sea in 2013.
Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, believed China may set up a similar ADIZ in the South China Sea, although China may hold back from doing so until after President Xi Jinping’s much anticipated visit to the U.S. in September.
“After that time, and after the U.S. goes into lock-down for the presidential campaign, it seems to me possible China might take this next step, aimed to consolidate its control in the region,” Jennings said recently at a conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, another Washington think tank.
Other scholars share similar concerns.
At a recent House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on America’s security role in the South China Sea, Andrew Erickson, a U.S. Naval War College professor, said he believed China will declare an ADIZ within two years.
Erickson said the facilities that China is building in the area includes a 3,000-meter-long runway on the reclaimed land on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands.
The most logical application of this runway, he said, would be to support a Chinese ADIZ in the near future.
Washington has said a unilaterally declared ADIZ in the South China Sea would impede freedom of navigation, and warned Beijing not to make such an announcement.
The United States reacted strongly to China’s announcement of an East China Sea ADIZ, and refused to recognize it by flying military aircrafts across the zone.
According to Erickson, there was no rule against China establishing an ADIZ. However, he said, what the U.S. should be concerned with was how China would administer its ADIZs.
“It is the way in which [the Chinese] roll down the East China Sea ADIZ,” he said. “China’s military said ‘defensive emergency measures’ would be used if an aircraft entering this zone declined to comply with the Chinese demand.”
Erickson said that was “simply against the basic principles of international law.”
Time not yet right
Beijing has said it has the right to establish an ADIZ near its territories, but the time is not yet right to do so in the South China Sea.
Wu Shicun, president of China's National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said Beijing should avoid unilaterally declaring an ADIZ over the southern sea, which could escalate tensions in the area and stall U.S. and Chinese military cooperation.
Appearing at the recent conference organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Wu added China should guarantee freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, accelerate the process of creating a Code of Conduct in the area with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, and ensure the civilian use of facilities on reclaimed islands.
However, Wu told VOA the picture could change if Japan became a factor.
“Japan wanted to join the U.S. in conducting air patrols over the South China Sea, and recently criticized Chinese reclamation in the area,” he said. “If one day Japan joined the U.S. in conducting close surveillance patrols, it would force China to respond accordingly.”
China claims much of the South China Sea and has been involved in sometimes bitter sovereignty disputes with neighboring countries.
These countries have accused China of creating artificial islands in the contested areas and building facilities that could potentially be for military use.
Tom Xiao contributed to this report, which was produced in collaboration with the VOA Mandarin service.