Last week the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) deployed J-11B fighters to Woody Island in the South China Sea. Simultaneously, Y-9 transport aircraft from the Western Theatre Command flew to the same maritime area to support mock combat operations.
In the light of such activity, it is an ideal time to address speculation that China will establish an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea.
A group of academics and experts on the South China Sea issue, speaking at a seminar in Hong Kong organised by Bloomberg, Chatham House and Hong Kong’s Lingnan University on 1 December, predicted that no ADIZ will be declared in the near future.
In fact, Chinese moves in the South China Sea have been relatively quiet in recent months as President Xi Jinping consolidates the gains he has already achieved. Nevertheless, the South China Sea remains a potential flashpoint as Asia witnesses the end of an era of unipolarity.
With reclaimed island facilities now in place in the Spratly Islands (e.g. Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef) plus bases in the Paracels, the PLA’s ability to enforce an ADIZ over the South China Sea has improved. However, it still could not do so to the extent it can over the East China Sea where it unilaterally created an ADIZ in November 2013.
Incidentally, one academic noted that China’s East China Sea ADIZ has not been well implemented, as there is internal competition between the PLAAF and the PLA Navy Air Force (PLANAF) as to who should be responsible for it.
Most panellists at the Hong Kong seminar, unnamed here because of Chatham House rules, agreed it would be counterproductive if China declared a South China Sea ADIZ in the short term, as it would undo all the recent improvement in relations with neighbours such as the Philippines.