HONG, KONG/BANGKOK – China says it reserves the right to establish an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea, a move that would raise tensions in a region racked by territorial disputes.
“China is entitled to set up ADIZs,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Thursday. “A decision in this regard depends on whether the air safety is threatened and to what extent it is threatened.”
Seven Philippine patrol planes on separate flights over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea have been warned by China in radio messages to stay away, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported, citing testimony by Vice Adm. Alexander Lopez at a Senate hearing Thursday.
In November 2013, China established an ADIZ to cover disputed islands in the adjacent East China Sea, prompting protests from Japan and the U.S., its treaty ally.
The warnings are sure to escalate frictions in the South China Sea, which China claims almost all of despite ownership assertions from several other nations, and which is home to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. China is creating artificial islands in the area, with satellite photos showing dredgers reclaiming land in seven areas.
“This is a cause for concern because China acts like there’s an ADIZ although there has been no formal declaration,” Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said at a televised briefing on Friday in Manila. Gazmin said he was aware of at least two instances involving Philippine planes.
China’s reclamation work includes the construction of an airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef large enough to host People’s Liberation Army planes, according to IHS Jane’s. An additional airstrip could be built on Subi Reef, it said.
If China sets up an ADIZ, “it will be seen by regional countries as a severe violation of freedom of navigation and further fuel concerns regarding China’s intentions and commitment to international rules and norms,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Adm. Samuel Locklear, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, told the Senate last month that China’s island-building program could give it “de facto” control over the waters. He described the pace of China’s building work as “astonishing.”
The Philippines is particularly concerned because it says Chinese vessels have prevented the country’s fishermen from entering waters it claims as its own.
“This is why the Philippines should augment its position in areas it controls, fortify its supply lines and lobby the U.S. and other allies to pre-emptively oppose anything that resembles an ADIZ,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science professor at De La Salle University in Manila.
Hua said Friday the Philippines and Vietnam are illegally occupying islands and building on them. She said the Philippines is breaching an international agreement that calls for territorial claimants in the waters to show self-restraint and avoid escalating disputes.
Vietnam has been reclaiming land on an island and a reef it occupies in the Spratlys, according to images published by an initiative of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. The pictures show work on Sand Cay and West Reef.
Freedom of navigation is key to the U.S. ability to project power in the region. The U.S. and the Philippines last month held their largest military exercises in years near the South China Sea, with 11,000 personnel, including some from Australia, taking part. Some drills took place in Zambales province, near the Scarborough Shoal, which China seized in 2012.
Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, who have refrained from openly criticizing China, said last month they have “serious concerns” about reclamation in the waters. The statement didn’t cite any country.
“Even ASEAN’s more cautious members are recognizing the need to confront the issue, or at least the impossibility of standing in the way of consensus to do so,” said Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“If the goal is to convince Beijing that the costs — in lost soft power and growing hesitance of others to trust its commitments and follow its lead — outweigh the benefits of this aggression, then building such international consensus is the only way to do so,” Poling said.