Beijing may replicate the controversial special air defense zone it unilaterally declared over the East China Sea in another disputed region — the vast South China Sea — in a bid to shore up its military strategy that could escalate tensions and intensify U.S.-China rivalry, experts say.
The controversial East China Sea air defense identification zone (ADIZ), announced more than two weeks ago, requires all aircraft entering the area which overlaps with similar zones established by neighbors Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to notify Chinese authorities beforehand or face unspecified defensive measures.
Ignoring protests from the United States and its close allies Japan and South Korea against the policy, Chinese officials have indicated that the zone could be extended to the South China Sea, where Beijing has overlapping territorial claims with five nations — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.
Beijing's envoy to the Philippines Ma Keqing was quoted saying last week that China has the right to set up ADIZs in other contested areas while a Chinese defense ministry spokesman said new zones would be established "at an appropriate time after completing preparations."
Asia experts see the East China Sea move as an obvious launching pad by China for establishing an air defense zone in the South China Sea, an area Beijing defines by a "nine-dash line" which stretches hundreds of miles south and east from its southernmost province of Hainan and cuts into the 200-mile (322-kilometer) exclusive economic zones of all the coastal states in the region.
"I believe it is a serious possibility that soon China will also declare its ADIZ over the South China Sea," Termsak Chalermpalanupap, an expert at the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), told RFA.
"China wants safe passage for its submarines based in Hainan to the South China Sea and to the Pacific passing through the waters between southern Taiwan and northern Philippines," he said. "China sees its ADIZ as part of its strategic military posture."
Hainan hosts Beijing's South Sea fleet as well as an emerging generation of nuclear submarines which China sees as key to protecting its territorial claims in the South China Sea, one of the world's busiest trade routes and a major potential source of oil and natural gas.
In fact, five days after Beijing announced the ADIZ over the East China Sea, China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and accompanying warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait into the South China Sea and made its first berth in Hainan, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
This is the first time the Liaoning has been sent to the South China Sea.
As Beijing's flexes its military muscle ahead of a possible launch of the ADIZ in the South China Sea, the Southeast Asian states appear helpless.
"I am afraid there is not much ASEAN or any of its member states can do in the event of a unilateral declaration by China to impose its ADIZ in the South China Sea," said Termsak, who had served as head of the political and security unit in his nearly two-decade career at the Jakarta-based ASEAN Secretariat.
Commercial airlines in Southeast Asian states, which have failed for the last decade to forge a code of conduct with China to avoid any conflict in the South China Sea, will have to comply and send their flight plans in advance to the Chinese authorities, he said.
But Termsak said that the United States is expected to kick up a storm if Beijing proceeds with its zoning plan in the South China Sea.
"We are too weak militarily to challenge or question China’s unilateral ADIZ. But I also believe the U.S. would not accept any Chinese ADIZ over the South China Sea and would challenge it openly, the way the U.S. sent two [unarmed] B-52 bombers into the Chinese ADIZ in the East China Sea."
Three days after Beijing announced the East China Sea ADIZ policy, a pair of U.S. B-52 bombers flew through the contested area to assert U.S. prerogatives. Japanese and South Korean military aircraft have also breached the zone without informing Beijing.
Security planners rattled
While scholars in China back up their country’s right to an ADIZ, "it is clear that the unilateral assertion of Chinese interests has rattled security planners across Asia" and "set Beijing and Washington openly at odds," said Sheila Smith, an Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank.
The latest Beijing action over its territorial disputes with its neighbors was a subject of tense talks last week between Chinese leaders and visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who said the East China Sea move had caused "significant apprehension" in the region.
"Digesting the conversations the vice president had in Asia will undoubtedly take some time, but make no mistake, the U.S. relationship with China has just taken a more precarious turn," Smith said, predicting that President Barack Obama's administration "will find it increasingly difficult to straddle its relations with Beijing and relations with its regional allies."
One expert says Beijing's new strategy could trigger a backlash for China with a more united East Asian stand in questioning China's unilateral actions over maritime territorial disputes.
"If the East China Sea ADIZ presages the declaration of an ADIZ over the South China Sea, as it seems it will, China will provide a common underpinning for the formation of an anti-China Asia-Pacific alliance based on territorial disputes," predicted Aurelia George Mulgan, a professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.
The first test of any diplomatic pushback by ASEAN against China's ADIZ plan could come at this weekend's summit talks between the Southeast Asian leaders and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo.
Japan has asked ASEAN states to include wording in an upcoming joint statement on protecting "freedom of overflight of the high seas" — an implicit reference to China's newly declared ADIZ in an area that includes islands at the heart of a territorial dispute with Japan, according to a Japan-ASEAN diplomatic source quoted by Japan's Kyodo news agency.
Referring to a draft statement, the source said he would like the two sides to affirm that any "abuse" of power in international civil aviation could pose a security "threat."
But the report also said that despite growing regional concerns, experts doubt ASEAN countries, which benefit from close economic ties with both China and Japan, would come out in full force with Japan to challenge China.
"The Abe government is fully aware that ASEAN does not want to be sandwiched between Japan and the United States on the one hand and China on the other," Tsuneo Watanabe, director of foreign and security policy research at the Tokyo Foundation, told Kyodo agency, suggesting the two sides will not discuss the ADIZ issue in detail.
Some experts think ASEAN should ask China directly whether it was moving to set up an ADIZ in the South China Sea.
"That would test Beijing’s commitment to work closely with ASEAN to prevent instability," said Asia scholars Lowell Bautista and Julio Amador in a joint commentary of the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum CSIS.
They argue that any unilateral ADIZ move in the South China Sea by Beijing would violate the spirit of a 2002 agreement between ASEAN and China that sets out a commitment to work toward a code of conduct aimed at avoiding clashes in the waters.
"It is not too late for ASEAN to take a leading role to diffuse tension and preemptively preclude a similar move in the South China Sea in the interest of regional stability."