A Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea would ratchet up regional tensions and be ignored by U.S. forces, said the head of the U.S. military forces in the Pacific during a press conference at the Pentagon on Thursday.
Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, is concerned Beijing would declare an ADIZ over its disputed holdings like it did over the East China Sea in 2013.
“I’m concerned, in the sense that I would find that destabilizing and provocative,” he said.
“We would ignore it, just like we’ve ignored the ADIZ that they’ve put in place in the East China Sea… Secretary [of State] Kerry asked China to not declare an ADIZ [over the South China Sea].”
In the last several weeks, new satellite imagery has revealed new Chinese military kit on its holdings in the Paracel Islands near Vietnam and artificial islands in the Spratlys close to the Philippines.
“I’m of the opinion they’re militarizing the South China Sea,” Harris said.
“They have reclaimed almost 3,000 acres of military bases in the South China Sea.”
For example HQ-9 anti-air warfare missiles were deployed on Woody Island in the Paracels earlier this month and the Chinese Shenyang J-11 were spotted in the region as recently as this week according to press reports.
But a persistent concern behind all of the reclamation, militarization and the rhetoric from Beijing is the possibility of the declaration of a Chinese ADIZ over the South China Sea.
An ADIZ – which are also used by the U.S. – require aircraft in the zone to declare its intentions and identify itself to a national aviation authority.
“International law does not prohibit nations from establishing air defense identification zones (ADIZ) in the international airspace adjacent to their territorial airspace,” the U.S. Navy’s Commander’s Handbook on the law of Naval Operations reads. “The legal basis for ADIZ regulations is the right of a nation to establish reasonable conditions of entry into its territory. Accordingly, an aircraft approaching national airspace can be required to identify itself while in international airspace as a condition of entry approval.”
However, conflicts over territory in the South China Sea where several countries claim the same territory make the declaration of a China ADIZ problematic for regional neighbors.
An ADIZ could pair with expansive territorial claims China has made in the South China Sea to give Beijing more influence in the region that could bleed over to more control of the economic flow through the region.
“When they put their advanced missile systems on the Paracels, and when they build three 10,000 foot runways in the Spratlys on the basis that they’ve reclaimed — when they do all of that, they’re changing the operational landscape in the South China Sea,” Harris said.
“So, that is what’s changed. The United States and our patrols — military patrols, air and maritime in the South China Sea haven’t really changed. We have a consistent presence in the Western Pacific, and we have had that for decades.”
But was is different is how much influence China has over the region, “short of war they can rise to the level of having tactical control of the water ways of the South China Sea.”
China quickly responded on Friday to Harris’ statements.
“We have noticed that this official is busy making comments on the South China Sea — sometimes in the U.S. Congress, and sometimes in the Defense Department — which has given us the general impression that he intends to smear China’s legitimate and reasonable actions in the South China Sea and sowing discord,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei said on Friday.
“He is finding an excuse for U.S. maritime hegemony and muscle-flexing on the sea.”
Earlier this month, China has accused two recent U.S. surface Freedom of Navigation operations (FON ops) in the South China Sea as provocative actions.
“As the world’s largest trade in goods nation and the largest South China Sea littoral state, China cares more about navigation safety and freedom in the South China Sea than any other country,” said ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying earlier this week.
“The United States talks about freedom of navigation, but I fear in its heart what it’s thinking about is absolute maritime hegemony.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi echoed comments, saying, “the demilitarization needs efforts of all parties, not only China, but also the United States and ASEAN countries.”
While Chinese officials comments are rhetorically charged, Hong did say while China reserves the right to declare an ADIZ over the South China Sea, the situation in the region was stable enough not to do so.
During his briefing in the Pentagon, Harris said there’s a chance to give China the benefit of the doubt.
“Let’s give China a chance here and see if they’ll opt for a more stabilizing less tense situation or whether they’ll opt to be a provocative and destabilizing influence,” Harris said.