TAIPEI, TAIWAN —
An air defense zone declared by Beijing, or any effort to stop civilian ship traffic, would raise the risk of conflict in the disputed South China Sea after years of calm, because either move would inconvenience day-to-day operations, scholars who follow the region say.
Five other militarily weaker maritime claimants have watched without major protest as China tests bombers, holds naval drills and considers nuclear power stations in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea. Last week Chinese news media reported tests of the country’s first domestically made seaplane, for possible use in the disputed waterway.
But other governments — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam — would step up their protests if Beijing declared an air defense identification zone or began forcibly directing traffic of the numerous privately owned ships that transit the sea, said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
“It would be a direct confrontation to the principle of freedom of navigation,” he said. “So far, China’s position is that ‘I’m taking control in several spots in the South China Sea,’ but China has never disrupted the freedom of navigation, military and civilian, so far.”
Countries with competing claims now let one another use the open sea as long as vessels from one avoid islets held by the others. Commercial planes overfly the sea around the clock, and at least one-third of the world’s marine shipping passes through it, along with 1.6 million fishing boats.