China should avoid unilaterally declaring an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea in order to help reduce tensions in the area, a leading Chinese scholar said Tuesday.
With growing concerns about China’s extensive land reclamation activities and the further militarization of some of its facilities, some have feared that Beijing will soon impose an ADIZ in the South China Sea similar to the one it declared over the East China Sea in November 2013 (See: “How Close is China to Another South China Sea Airstrip?”). An ADIZ, which would effectively broaden Chinese airspace and impose restrictions on aircraft flying through the zone, would be the latest in a string of assertive moves that would strengthen Chinese sovereignty over the area.
But asked what China should and should not do in the South China Sea, Wu Sichun, head of the influential National Institute for South China Sea Studies in China, told an audience at a think tank conference in Washington, D.C. that Beijing should try not to unilaterally declare an ADIZ. Wu suggested that not doing so would be one way for China to signal restraint and reduce tensions in the South China Sea.
“China should try not to unilaterally declare an ADIZ,” Wu said following a panel presentation at a day-long conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Wu’s recommendations stemmed from a longer “should and should not list” he had recommended for both the United States and China in the South China Sea. Asked by The Diplomat to clarify what a ‘should not list’ would specifically entail for China, Wu suggested a handful of things including not declaring an ADIZ, safeguarding freedom of navigation and speeding up work on a binding code of conduct (CoC) with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Beijing’s construction of artificial islands and its foot-dragging on a CoC have raised concerns in the region and beyond about its continued assertiveness in the South China Sea and its intentions more generally (See: “China’s Assertiveness Could Worsen, Japan’s Military Chief Warns”).
On the U.S. side, Wu said that Washington should not attempt to contain China and stick to a truly neutral stance on the issue. He said that the United States should approach China on the South China Sea question from a “mutual respect” and that both sides should move forward on military cooperation in this spirit.
Apart from his ‘should and should not list,’ Wu also recommended a regional mechanism for consultation on maritime affairs. He did not adequately specify, however, how this would fit within the existing alphabet soup of Asian institutions that address maritime security in some form, including the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus) and the newer and narrower Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (See: “Does Asia Need a New Maritime Organization?”).
Wu also firmly rejected what he viewed as Japanese interference in the South China Sea disputes, which he said only contributed to worsening the situation.