The Philippines and Vietnam already have Air Defense Identification Zones in the South China Sea. So why can’t China have one?  It is legal under international law to unilaterally declare an ADIZ and it is a face-saving way too for Beijing to keep an internationally recognized China presence in the South China Sea if the Hague tribunal rules against its jurisdictional claims. Judging by the experience in the East China Sea, China has tried to use ADIZ as an instrument of engagement, not aggression.

There are already at least two Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZs) in the South China Sea … and none of them are Chinese.

outh China Sea activities

One is a Philippine Air Defense Identification Zone (PADIZ) and the other is a Vietnam Air Defense Identification Zone (VADIZ).  Then would a PRC ADIZ (People’s Republic of China Air Defense Identification Zone) in the South China Sea (SCS) really be so bad?

There has been an epidemic of digital handwringing concerning the possibility that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will declare an ADIZ in the South China Sea in retaliation for an unfavorable outcome in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) arbitration.

Maybe, maybe not.  I’m not clutching my pearls in any case.  It should be, but perhaps won’t be, understood that an ADIZ is not a declaration of sovereignty or restricted air space.  It means that aircraft, civilian or military, that enter the ADIZ are expected to identify themselves and declare their intentions.

ADIZs serve as an early warning/notification system along the lines of “Though I am flying near your borders and military installations, I do not intend to drop a bomb on you.”

The size of an ADIZ is a function of the speed of foreign aircraft, location of home airfields, and the time it takes to scramble a jet and visually examine and determine the intentions of an unidentified approaching aircraft before it gets within “doing something scary” range.

The nation with the biggest ADIZ portfolio in the world is, of course, the United States, setting up the same kind of double standard argument that bedevils the US efforts to explain why the China must adhere to UNCLOS even though the US has not signed the treaty.

In the strategic bomber era, the US set up a picket line of ADIZs to keep tabs on Soviet military aircraft.  It is still in place, primarily to assist in detecting and interdicting drug smuggling aircraft from Latin America.

The US ADIZ philosophy was not just a matter of early warning for the continental US.  It is forward-positioned, to say the least.

In addition to its own US ADIZ along its maritime borders — which the Russian Federation occasionally prods by sending over some unannounced Tupelov bombers Alaska way — the US coordinates a North Atlantic ADIZ far from its borders.  The North Atlantic ADIZ filled up the space between Europe and Greenland and was enforced by a US fighter squadron based in Iceland until 2006.  Today, it is covered by rotating NATO air force units (Iceland does not have its own air force).

An ADIZ is not a bad idea for the South China Sea one might think, which is swarming with increasingly unfriendly military aircraft and dotted with China’s military installations.  And I suspect China likes the idea because:

* It is 100% legal under international law to unilaterally declare an ADIZ and

* It is a face-saving way to keep an internationally recognized China presence in the South China Sea if, as expected, its jurisdictional claims are repudiated by the arbitration ruling.

US pivoteers are dead set against tolerating a China ADIZ in the South China Sea, ostensibly for the reason that it somehow contributes to nefarious China salami slicing and will, in ways somewhat metaphysical, legitimize China’s inordinate South China Sea claims.

Maybe only favored US ally Japan is supposed to have ADIZ encroachment whining rights, having recently complained that Chinese and Russian aircraft triggered the scramble of JSDAF fighters almost 600 times in fiscal 2015.

Per Secretary Kerry, the United States has deemed declaration of a China ADIZ as a no-no:

“We would consider an ADIZ…over portions of the South China Sea as a provocative and destabilizing act which would automatically raise tensions and call into serious question China’s commitment to diplomatically manage the territorial disputes of the South China Sea.”

Nonsense in my opinion.  It’s not a big deal.  When China declared an East China Sea ADIZ, US military and Japanese military and civilian aircraft pointedly ignored it, and the world has not come to an end.

China is within its rights to declare an ADIZ.  Indeed, I suspect President Obama, with his lawyerly approach to IR understands that, which is why the US did not bar US civil aviation from respecting the China’s East China Sea ADIZ.

But maybe the US does not want to let China demonstrate that it has legitimate rights in the South China Sea because that would interfere with the current framing of “rogue panda defies international liberal order through SCS encroachment” narrative that’s making the rounds.

And maybe the onus should be on the United States — which has been sailing two carrier groups around the West Pacific in a show of strength, working to install long-range radars on China’s perimeter in South Korea, and slotting electronic warfare planes into the Philippines — to explain why an ADIZ is “provocative” and “destabilizing.”

Judging by the experience in the East China Sea, China has tried to use ADIZ as an instrument of engagement, not aggression.

One of the most interesting ignored stories of the East China Sea ADIZ was the report by Mainichi Shimbun based on internal Japanese government documents — and picked up by Michael Penn at Shingetsu News in English and no other Western outlet as far as I can tell — that the East China Sea ADIZ, far from being a bolt from the blue, had been the subject of detailed consultations between China and Japanese defense ministries for three years before it was actually announced.

Somehow, the Abe government forgot to mention that when it exploded in alarm over the announcement in 2013.

South Korea, by the way, exploited the furor over China’s announcement of its ADIZ (about which it had reportedly also been briefed by Beijing) to quietly announce an expansion of its own ADIZ—inevitably tagged “the KADIZ”—over some contested rocks, so that it overlapped not only with the new Chinese ADIZ but also the existing Japanese ADIZ.

Japan itself has unilaterally extended its ADIZ—which it inherited from the US in 1972 — three times.  The 2010 enlargement of the Japanese ADIZ to secure a new military installation on Yonaguni Island near the Senkakus also had an overlap — with Taiwan’s ADIZ.

The fact that ADIZs can overlap is completely logical when one thinks of the overlapping capabilities and areas of operation of the air forces of different nations in a crowded neighborhood.

Or sometimes illogical.

The worst ADIZ offender is not China.  It is Taiwan, whose ambitious ADIZ not only overlaps with Japan’s and China’s East China Sea ADIZ; it also crosses the Taiwan Straits and covers several thousand square miles of the Chinese mainland in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces.  I suspect this ADIZ is also a legacy of the US military presence on Taiwan pre-1979.

Which brings me to an even more interesting fact I stumbled across recently.

The Philippines has an ADIZ, a Cold War legacy established in 1953, covering part of the South China Sea as well as its eastern, northern, and southern reaches.

And Vietnam does as well though I haven’t been able to find a map for it.

So, the South China Sea already has a PADIZ…and a VADIZ.

The fact that two nations already have ADIZs covering the SCS seems to undercut the US claim that a PRC ADIZ would somehow destabilize the region.

Is a third PRC ADIZ really that different?

And when the US is running a de facto China-containment policy predicated upon upgrading military capabilities of the US and its allies around China’s perimeter, maybe hassling with a PRC ADIZ is just a cost of doing business and a smart way to safely manage interactions between increasingly hostile militaries.

Things can happen when the skies are crowded with warplanes.  Bad things.  And stupid things.

Recently, Vietnam lost two military aircraft in the Gulf of Tonkin, a Sukhoi fighter and a turboprop plane sent to search for it.

Bad thing.

Meanwhile, one of the leading lights of the pivot at the US Naval War College proposed that maybe China had shot the planes down.

Stupid thing.

What actually happened was that China, eager to burnish its “helpmate to the global commons”, responded to a Vietnamese request for help by dispatching three vessels to participate in search and rescue operations.

Good thing.

If everybody was communicating their flight operations in the South China Sea, innocent and malicious misunderstandings might be more easily averted.

Judging by NATO complaining about the situation in Eastern Europe — where the Russian air force allegedly occasionally flies around the international air space over the Baltic Sea without turning on its transponders, causing much scrambling, heartburn, and handwringing over unsafe operating practices — communication and over-communication is the best way to “share and be nice”.

Wonder if there’s a MADIZ (Malaysia)…or IADIZ (Indonesia)…or a BADIZ (Brunei)…or a SADIZ (Singapore)?

Why not?

The more, the merrier in my opinion.

It appears China’s right to declare an ADIZ in the SCS could easily be acknowledged.  I would not be surprised if it has floated this idea as a post-arbitration face-saver and a transition to a more international law and logic-friendly treatment of the South China Sea as a global commons.

Why the US is loath to accept that is a question that is apparently not worth asking.  Except by me.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

(Copyright 2016 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Peter Lee

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

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