Image source: Hindustan Times

Dr Vijay Sakhuja

Media is rife with speculations that China may announce Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the disputed Pratas, Paracel and Spratly island chain in the South China Sea.[1] This is not the first time that ADIZ over disputed islands has made headlines; in fact, the issue can be traced back to 2010, when during an interaction in Beijing, the Japanese delegation was informed by a Chinese government think tank that their country was considering establishing its first ADIZ in the East China Sea. Also, the Chinese ambassador in Tokyo proposed that the “two countries negotiate rules of behavior for air-to-air encounters in the region.”[2] This proposal was made knowing fully well that their Zone overlapped with that of Japanese.

After due national legislative processes, China finally rolled out East China Sea ADIZ in 2013; surely it was fraught with problems of overlaps with the existing ADIZs of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. It was also the Chinese argument that its ADIZ follows “common international practices” and Australia, Canada, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and others have issued formal guidelines and insist on aircraft filing flight plans regardless of destination.[3] The Chinese announcement invited sharp criticism from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, but the US also jumped into the fray because of the “applicability of the US-Japan security treaty to the Senkaku Islands and the United States’ right to freedom of overflight in international airspace.”[4] 

The US labelled the Chinese ADIZ declaration as ‘unilateral’, ‘escalatory’ and a “destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo”;[5] but later Washington agreed to the Chinese identification requirements for civilian aircraft only. However, in order to test the Chinese, the US sent two B-52 bombers through the ADIZ in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands without notifying Chinese aviation authorities. The bomber flight was not challenged by the Chinese and the US categorised it as ‘uneventful’ with “no contact, no reaction”;[6] however, Beijing responded by stating that it “monitored the entire process.”  The jury is still out whether the Chinese have reconciled and accepted the East China Sea ADIZ is only for civilian aircraft (sans military aircraft) which is in line with its understanding that other nations too have established such civil aviation regimes and practices.  

However, Japan has been regularly scrambling its fighters against Chinese military aircraft whenever they intrude into Japanese ADIZ. Majority of these incidents are in airspace close to Okinawa and the disputed Senkaku islands controlled by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan.[7] Perhaps what is worrying the Japanese is that the number of such intrusions have been steadily increasing from 500 in FY 2017–18, 638 in FY 2018–19 and 675 in FY 2019–20. [8]

Be that as it may, the question today is whether China will announce an ADIZ over the disputed islands and territories in the South China Sea. Although Beijing has not made any official declaration with regard to ADIZ over Pratas, Paracel and Spratly island chain, few Chinese analysts with knowledge of the dynamics of AIDZ (operating and enforcing) are of the view that China may be constrained to announce the establishment of an ADIZ due to several “technical, political and diplomatic considerations.”[9]

It is their view that until China has the necessary “detection equipment, combat capabilities and other infrastructure in place to manage”, it would be a folly to pursue this initiative. Other than Woody Island, which has been built into a highly weaponised fortification capable of even receiving bomber aircraft, only a few reclaimed features in the Spratly Islands have short air strips and can operate aircraft. Therefore, China’s ability to “scramble fighter jets to expel intrusive foreign aircraft in the South China Sea” may be questionable. Furthermore, the South China Sea is “several times the size of the East China Sea, and the cost to support the ADIZ would be huge.”[10] However, another view questions this belief and notes that in the past, “Beijing declared the ADIZ in the East China Sea even though the PLA was still incapable of detecting, tracking and expelling intrusive foreign aircraft”.[11]

The ADIZ is a very complex issue and if the East China Sea ADIZ is any indicator, any attempts by China to announce ADIZ over the South China Sea will further exacerbate the already volatile situation in the western Pacific Ocean where both China and the US are wrestling for dominance and are engaged in sabre rattling marked by naval drills and manoeuvers including fielding high-end naval platforms such as aircraft carriers and submarines and fighter jets from both sides challenging each other in the air. 

By all counts, the respective claimant States’ arguments over disputed territories in the South China Sea are intractable. They have ‘dug heels’ on these islands, reefs and features, and built up ‘minimum to expansive’ infrastructure to host military personnel, operate surveillance and reconnaissance systems, and operate military and civilian aircraft. Beijing would not be quite inclined nor prepared at this juncture to disappoint its ASEAN friends by opening yet another contentious issue in the form of an ADIZ in the South China Sea. A Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) has still not made much headway beyond first reading of the Single Draft COC Negotiating Text. 

Finally, any attempt by China to declare an ADIZ in the South China Sea, is surely going to overlap with the ADIZ of other claimants of islands and features in the South China Sea and these are under their occupation/control. This would be a perfect recipe of extending the disputes from the surface of water into the air space, making the issue much more complex given that there is no provision under international law which prevents States from announcing ADIZ. Furthermore, no attempt has yet been made to codify AIDZ and set out procedures within an ADIZ.

Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.


[1]“Beijing’s Plans for South China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone Cover Pratas, Paracel and Spratly Islands, PLA Source Says.” Accessed July 12, 2020. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3086679/beijings-plans-south-china-sea-air-defence-identification-zone.

[2]“Counter-Coercion Series: East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone.” Accessed July 12, 2020. https://amti.csis.org/counter-co-east-china-sea-adiz/.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Ibid.

[6]“U.S. Flies Two Warplanes over East China Sea, Ignoring New Chinese Air Defense Zone.” Accessed July 12, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-flies-two-warplanes-over-east-china-sea-ignoring-new-chinese-air-defense-zone/2013/11/26/0510eee2-56bf-11e3-835d-e7173847c7cc_story.html.

[7]“Japan Scrambles Fighter Jets 999 Times as Chinese Sorties Increase.” Accessed July 12, 2020. https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/east-asia/article/3006195/japan-scrambles-fighter-jets-999-times-chinese-sorties-increase.

[8]“Statistics on Scrambles through FY2019.” Accessed July 12, 2020. https://www.mod.go.jp/js/Press/press2020/press_pdf/p20200409_02.pdf.

[9]“Beijing’s Plans for South China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone Cover Pratas, Paracel and Spratly Islands, PLA Source Says.” Accessed July 12, 2020. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3086679/beijings-plans-south-china-sea-air-defence-identification-zone.

[10]“China has been Planning for a South China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone for a Decade.” Accessed July 12, 2020. https://www.businessinsider.com/beijing-plans-south-china-sea-air-defense-id-zone-2010-2020-6?IR=T.

[11]Ibid.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Honorary Distinguished Fellow with CPPR and associated with our Centre for Strategic Studies. Dr. Sakhuja, a former Indian Navy officer, is also former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He earned his MPhil and PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He specializes in issues of national security and public policy, particularly in the context of ocean affairs, geopolitics, Climate Change, Arctic, Blue Economy and 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies.

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