What is China’s next big move in the South China Sea? Ask the experts this question and tally their predictions. The action that will get the most votes is likely to be the imposition of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ). Indeed, a widespread view among the South China Sea watchers is that China will sooner or later declare an ADIZ in this semi-closed maritime domain, where it has reclaimed thousands of acres of land to build long airstrips, high-frequency radars, stationed combat aircraft and long-range missiles.
This view is undergirded by two assumptions. The first is that Beijing is willing to accept high costs, while an ADIZ will bring enormous benefits to China. The second assumption is that there will be a moment when circumstances raise either the costs for China’s rivals to retaliate, the benefits for China to impose an ADIZ, or both. Consequently, declaring an ADIZ is a matter of timing, as China is waiting for the opportunity that maximizes the cost-benefit ratio of this action.