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US watching if Beijing declares Air Defense Zone in South China Sea

The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) conducts patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands, in 2015. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Conor Minto/Released)
June 26, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The United States is closely watching reports that Beijing is planning to declare a so-called Air Defense Identification Zone in the skies above the disputed South China Sea, the American air force commander in the Pacific told reporters Wednesday.

A Chinese move to claim an ADIZ in the sea region could have a negative impact on the ability of nations to fly, sail and operate in a free and open Indo-Pacific “wherever international law allows,” Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. said during a special teleconference briefing from Hawaii.

“It really goes against the rules-based international order, and that’s concerning not only for PACAF and the United States, but I would say many of the nations in the region,” Brown said, referring to a potential Chinese ADIZ in the South China Sea, while he fielded questions from reporters across the region about a range of issues related to his Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) command.

“And this kind of impinges upon some of the international airspace, and it impacts not just the PACAF, but all the nations in the region,” he added. “And so, it’s important for us to pay attention to something like this.”

The air force commander said he was also “concerned by increasing opportunistic activity by the PRC [People’s Republic of China] to coerce its neighbors and press its unlawful maritime claims while the region and the world is focused on addressing the COVID pandemic.”

“We are committed to upholding the rules-based international order to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific that protects the sovereignty of every nation, ensures the peaceful resolution of disputes without coercion, and promotes free, fair, and reciprocal trade, and preserves freedom of navigation and overflight,” Brown added.

His comments came amid news reports that two U.S. Navy aircraft-carrier strike groups were sailing together in the Philippine Sea – on the doorstep of the South China Sea – and had launched dual flight drills.

Beijing: ‘Every country has the right’

Recent reports have pointed to the possibility that Beijing is planning to declare an ADIZ in the South China Sea.

On Monday, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs was asked to confirm a report that China was “getting more likely” to establish such an aerial zone in the strategic and potentially mineral-rich waterway.

“I’m not sure what the source of this report is, but I’d like to stress that every country has the right to establish an ADIZ and to decide whether to establish an ADIZ based on the intensity of the threats it faces in air defense security,” spokesman Zhao Lijian said, referring to a report in The Economist.

“In the light of the air security threats China faces above relevant waters of the South China Sea, China will carefully and prudently study the relevant issue taking into account all factors,” he added.

An ADIZ is a zone where all civilian aircraft must identify themselves and announce their location. In such a zone, civilian aircraft are tracked and identified before further entering into a country’s airspace, although an ADIZ does not restrict travel in and out of its limits, nor does it usually apply to military aircraft.

In practice, an ADIZ in the South China Sea would likely mean that civilian planes would need to report their presence to Chinese air traffic control, and could potentially be intercepted if they didn’t. However, China has not yet taken such action in an ADIZ it established seven years ago above the East China Sea, farther north.

Experts have said that enforcing such a zone, which would cover a vast area of the South China Sea, would present huge logistical challenges for the Chinese air force and could provoke a diplomatic backlash.

Other nations maintain airstrips on islands they occupy in the contested region. In the Spratly Islands, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan are among countries that have built runways on territories they occupy.

China, for its part, has for years been expanding its territorial claims in the sea and has installed weapons systems and established military outposts, while deploying maritime militia vessels to the South China Sea.

The maritime region is claimed in whole or in part by China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Indonesia urges firmness by ASEAN

Meanwhile in Jakarta on Wednesday, Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi urged members of the ASEAN bloc to take a firm stance regarding Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Retno was speaking after taking part in an online meeting of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It took place two days before ASEAN leaders are to meet in an online summit Friday.

“Regarding the Nine-Dash Line claim in the South China Sea, Indonesia conveyed that ASEAN needs to show solidity regarding respect for the international legal principles including UNCLOS 1982 and all its mechanisms,” Indonesia’s top diplomat said in a statement.

Retno was referring to a boundary on Chinese maps that delineates the extent of Beijing’s claims in the sea and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

She also urged major powers to contribute to peace and disability in the sea region.

“Collaboration and cooperation must continue to be prioritized, not rivalry,” Retno said.

Indonesia is not among the countries with contending territorial claims in the South China Sea but tensions arose between Jakarta and Beijing in early 2020 and 2016 over the presence of Chinese fishing boats in waters off Indonesia’s Natuna Islands.

Last week, Retno said there was “no reason to negotiate” with China as she reaffirmed Jakarta’s stance that it has “no overlapping claims with China” in the maritime region.

Her earlier comments came days after Indonesia sent another diplomatic letter on the topic to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, in response to one submitted by China to the U.N. chief 10 days earlier.

In its letter, Beijing had invited Jakarta to negotiate what it called “overlapping claims of maritime rights and interests” in the South China Sea.