Quiet Air Zone Shows China's Struggle to Control Contested Seas

  • Xi government reserves right to set South China Sea air zone
  • Beijing doesn't actively enforce other air zone near Japan

As the battle for control of the South China Sea heats up, Beijing’s struggle to assert its authority over another disputed waterway may prove instructive. 

QuickTake Territorial Disputes

China has been warning planes away from reefs it reclaimed in the South China Sea, and has said it reserves the right to announce an air defense identification zone over the area. It’s expected to boost its military presence after the U.S. this week sailed a warship into the 12-nautical mile zone around China’s man-made islands.

But controlling the seas may prove easier for China than controlling the air, according to observers, even after the U.S. incursion and with further patrols expected. The U.S. warship did not venture far inside the 12-mile zone, where China’s coast guard is practiced in providing a ring of deterrence.

China has already faced difficulty enforcing an air defense identification zone it set up two years back covering islands disputed with Japan in the East China Sea, which is closer to the Chinese mainland. Setting up and maintaining a zone over the much larger South China Sea -- which stretches along the coast of Vietnam, across to the Philippines and down to Singapore and Indonesia -- would be even harder.

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“The South China Sea is a completely different beast,” said Li Jie, a senior researcher at the Chinese Naval Research Institute in Beijing. “The territorial disputes there involve many more countries, and if you take out a map, the topographic features are much more complex. It’d be more provocative in the eyes of the Americans.”

Lacking Enforcement

Since setting up the East China Sea air zone -- through which the U.S. swiftly flew B-52 bombers -- China has quietly stopped seeking to actively enforce it, according to military officials and policy advisers who have followed the issue. That’s despite initial warnings the military might use force against planes that failed to follow rules including the requirement to file flight plans.

The air zone is technically in operation in the sense China’s air force patrols it, but it has never taken “defensive emergency measures” set out in the initial announcement, which could include interceptions of planes.

The People’s Liberation Army lacks the ground-based air surveillance and a detailed joint operational plan between the air force and navy to “fully and effectively” administer the entire zone, according to a former senior PLA officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Military Aircraft

There are also strategic considerations: If China were to intercept aircraft that didn’t follow its rules, it could potentially risk a clash with a country like Japan, which has a well-trained, efficient air force, or the U.S.

“It is my understanding that China has never sought to fully enforce the ADIZ as it pertains to military aircraft,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This is partly a function of insufficient capability,” she said. “It is also because China does not want a military confrontation with Japan.”

The initial announcement of the air zone brought some confusion. While the rules were supposed to apply to all aircraft entering the area, the defense ministry later said commercial flights by foreign airlines would not be affected.

Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways don’t report flight plans to China and haven’t done so for almost two years. They only reported their plans for several days in the aftermath of the zone’s announcement. JAL is not aware of any issues related to the non-filing of such plans, said Tokyo-based spokesman Jian Yang.

‘More Mature’

The ADIZ could have been conducted "in a more mature manner,” said Shen Dingli, associate dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. Beijing could have learned from the U.S., the first country to set up an air defense zone in 1950 over North America, Shen said. The U.S. carried out a three-month pilot program beforehand.

The East China Sea zone only served to strengthen ties between Japan and the U.S. Visiting Japan in April 2014, President Barack Obama said the islands were covered by the U.S.-Japan security treaty and the U.S. would oppose any attempt to undermine Japan’s control of them.

"This was a direct reaction to the Chinese announcement of the zone, and the Americans were effectively telling the Chinese: don’t do your zone, because I’m still No. 1 in the region,” said Shen.

Naval Weakness

Similarly, in the South China Sea, the U.S. might be compelled to assist another regional ally, the Philippines. Other Southeast Asian nation claimants to the South China Sea like Vietnam have drawn closer to the U.S. in recent years.

While the Chinese military has made advances in building its naval force in the last decade, including rolling out its first aircraft carrier, it also suffers serious weaknesses, according to a Rand Corp. report released earlier this year. The military has not fought a major war since a border fight with Vietnam in 1979.

That may not deter China given President Xi Jinping’s eagerness for the country to become a military power, something he has spoken of as a return to China’s natural state.

‘A Blessing’

“The escalation in the South China Sea might be a blessing in disguise, and it can actually turn into a good thing,” said Colonel Liu Mingfu, a professor at China’s National Defense University. “It would help boost solidarity in the military, adding an extra sense of urgency to put in more effort to strengthen the navy, and drive home the point that economic development is not enough if China wants to become a true power.”

Both sides are likely to move carefully for the next few months, said June Teufel Dreyer, a University of Miami political science professor.

“But then China will push forward again, perhaps saying it was ‘forced’ to do so by some action, either by one of the claimants, perhaps Vietnam or the Philippines,” she said. “And the U.S. will feel it has to do something in response. That’s when things could get dangerous.”

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