In response to reports by Japan’s Asahi Shimbun that a South China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) was imminent, following on the heels of the East China Sea ADIZ, China has accused Japan of spreading rumors. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei, in a press release quoted by Xinhua, said that “We sternly warned these forces not to mislead public opinions with rumors and play up tensions for their own selfish benefit.” The Diplomat reported on Asahi’s initial report, which it said emerged from several Chinese government sources including “one senior official in a government-affiliated research institution,” on Friday.
To recap, the initial report by Asahi alleges that the very same institution that devised the East China Sea ADIZ–the Air Force Command College–has been working on a South China Sea analogue and submitted a draft of plans to military leaders as of May 2013. The report seemed widely credible considering that following the implementation of the East China Sea ADIZ, Chinese defense spokesman Yang Yujun, in a question and answer session on November 23, 2013, said that “China will establish other Air Defense Identification Zones at the right moment after necessary preparations are completed.”
The declaration by the Chinese Foreign Ministry puts China in a somewhat difficult position. Essentially, Hong Lei’s statements seem to unambiguously deny any plans for a South China Sea ADIZ. Should China implement such an ADIZ in the future, it would only face the prospect of losing greater trust in the region. That the Chinese foreign ministry would go to the trouble of condemning Asahi’s report as the machinations of deluded “right-wing forces” in Japan might indicate that China is sincere about the prospect of not establishing an ADIZ over the South China Sea as many have come to fear. On the flip side, it could indicate a rift between Chinese foreign ministry officials and their defense counterparts–the original indication that China would pursue additional air defense zones came from a defense ministry spokesman.
A South China Sea ADIZ would be immensely costly for Chinese diplomacy regionally and globally as its presumed dimensions would place China at odds with several ASEAN states. The East China Sea ADIZ, while widely perceived as a destabilizing unilateral move, was partly an acute reaction to Chinese concerns over Japanese behavior around the dispute Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (with the perhaps inadvertent effect of irking South Korea).
In fact, Hong Lei’s latest statement noted that “the Chinese side has yet to feel any air security threat from the ASEAN countries and is optimistic about its relations with the neighboring countries and the general situation in the South China Sea region.” Where Japan continuously scrambles jets at the sight of Chinese patrols in nearby disputed waters, China’s disputes with ASEAN are largely maritime in nature, involving ships rather than aircraft. If the ADIZ was China’s preferred mode of waging “lawfare” in the East China Sea, then Hainan province’s latest fishing rules might serve as a better model of “lawfare” for the South China Sea.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, during a visit to the Philippines in December, explicitly warned China that the United States would not accept a South China Sea ADIZ (as it purportedly doesn’t accept the East China Sea ADIZ): “Today, I raised our deep concerns about China’s announcement of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone. I told the foreign secretary that the United States does not recognize that zone and does not accept it. The zone should not be implemented, and China should refrain from taking similar unilateral actions elsewhere in the region, and particularly over the South China Sea.”
For the moment, the Chinese foreign ministry’s willingness to address an unconfirmed report by a Japanese newspaper is curious but it suggests that China might abstain from a South China Sea ADIZ in the short term. That said, it is possible that Asahi’s original report is correct; China has, in all likelihood, planned out a South China Sea ADIZ. Contingency planning is good practice but it doesn’t mean that all plans will become a reality. China’s perceived threats in the East and South China Seas are different and, contrary to what some would argue, an air defense identification zone might not be a one-size-fits-all strategy.