Is China Set to Announce a South China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone?

In this undated photo released by Xinhua News Agency, a Chinese H-6K bomber patrols the islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

 

In June, China announced that it is ready to impose an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea, similar to the one it did in the East China Sea almost three years ago. Meanwhile Chinese H-6K bombers are already patrolling the islands and reefs there. A military expert told Sputnik that the recent Hague ruling may facilitate the move.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague’s ruling in favor of the Philippines’ case challenging China’s South China Sea claims has forced Beijing to prepare for a dialogue with Manila on disadvantageous terms, Vasily Kashin, military expert and a senior researcher at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, told Sputnik.China is not the first nation which refuses to recognize the arbitration court decision, he added; however, the US is trying to use this to mount more pressure on Beijing.

The last thing the Chinese want in this situation, the expert says, is to seem weak. It appears that from a technical point of view, the preparation for creating an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea was completed long ago.

ADIZ is a publicly defined area where unidentified aircraft can be interrogated or intercepted before entering sovereign airspace.

However it could be announced right now, due to the recent arbitration court ruling, which Beijing is protesting.

The regular combat air patrols of its H-6K long-range nuclear-capable bombers will be a substantial show of power.

Vasily Kashin recalled that China’s air defense identification zone in the East China Sea has been demonstratively ignored by Japan and the US. So far, it hasn’t resulted in any dangerous incidents, however combat aircraft have already been at risk of near-midair collision.

Given the increased tensions, one can’t rule out a repeat of the Hainan Island incident of April 2001, when a US Navy EP-3 surveillance plane collided with a Chinese J-8 fighter jet in the airspace above China’s 200 mile (321.8 km) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).The mid-air collision then sent the Chinese jet into the ocean and forced the US plane to make an emergency landing in Chinese territory – on the island of Hainan.

The repeat of such an incident would be highly undesirable by both sides, the expert says.

After the construction of the artificial island and opening of a new airport there, China has additional opportunities for control of the airspace above the disputed area.

The airport on Woody Island (called Yongxing Island in China) in the Paracel Islands archipelago has already been used for stationing J-11 fighter jets.

China has also deployed its fourth-generation HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to Woody Island; their engagement zone is tangent to the engagement zone of similar systems deployed on the island of Hainan.

The expert, however, argues that such systems deployed far in the South on the Spratly Islands, which lie almost 1,000 km away from Hainan, would hardly be of any use in the event of a large-scale conflict.

These islands are too small to provide any shelter and protection against airstrikes and cruise missiles. The garrisons located there will be doomed, he says.

But under the conditions of prolonged tension which does not escalate into war, the fighter jets deployed there might be of great use.  Their escort of US combat and reconnaissance jets will demonstrate China’s power and readiness to firmly safeguard its positions.

At the same time, he says, it is very important for Beijing not overplay its hand with Manila and not to disrupt the dialogue between the two due to any military incident, especially now, when there is still a chance for a deal with the new administration in the Philippines.