WASHINGTON – A top defense official has warned that China may be creating artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea as a forerunner to declaring an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the waters.
“China is building islands in the South China Sea on which to put radar and air defense missiles,” Masanori Nishi, a policy adviser to Defense Minister Gen Nakatani, said in an opinion piece published Monday in Defense News, a U.S. weekly publication.
The initiative “might be for a future ADIZ announcement in the South China Sea,” said Nishi, who took up his current post in October after resigning as vice defense minister, the top bureaucrat in the Defense Ministry.
Nishi also suggested China would seek to learn “lessons” from its establishment of an ADIZ over the East China Sea in 2013. That zone overlaps with Japanese airspace over the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan. Beijing recently failed to spot a U.S. bomber flying through a blind spot in the zone, Nishi said.
What China will do next is “beyond our imagination” as it continues to test boundaries, Nishi said.
“In this escalating game, we must be vigilant,” he said, referring to the importance of cooperation by Tokyo, Washington and other allies over the South China Sea issue.
Japan, the U.S. and other nations have blasted China for constructing various large-scale facilities on the reclaimed islands, including at least two airstrips in the disputed Spratly islets while ignoring objections by other claimants.
China’s November 2013 declaration of an ADIZ over the East China Sea drew sharp criticism from Japan and the U.S. The zone’s demarcation overlaps those declared by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and came without any prior consultation with relevant countries.
Any nation can set up an ADIZ outside its territorial airspace as a defense perimeter to give the country more time to respond to incursions by potentially hostile aircraft.
Also Monday, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander warned of a possible arms race in the South China Sea that could engulf the region, as nations become increasingly tempted to use military force to settle territorial spats instead of international law.
Adm. Scott Swift urged nations, like China, to seek arbitration to settle maritime disputes.
“My concern is that after many decades of peace and prosperity, we may be seeing the leading edge of a return of ‘might makes it right’ to the region,” Swift said in a speech in Hawaii, according to a copy seen by Reuters.
By resorting to military strength to impose territorial claims, nations, including China, risked sparking a military arms race that could engulf the region, he said.
“Claimants and nonclaimants alike are transferring larger shares of national wealth to develop more capable naval forces beyond what is needed merely for self-defense,” Swift said.
Beijing is building seven man-made islands on reefs in the Spratly Islands, including a 3,000-meter-long airstrip on one of the sites, according to satellite imagery of the area.
“Even now, ships and aircraft operating nearby these features, in accordance with international law are subject to superfluous warnings that threaten routine and commercial operations,” Swift said, speaking at the Cooperative Strategy Forum to naval commanders from Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in world trade ships every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.
In October, the U.S. guided-missile destroyer Lassen sailed close to one of China’s man-made islands, drawing an angry rebuke from China and a shadowing patrol.
The U.S. Navy is unlikely to carry out another patrol within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of the Chinese-built islands this year as officials had initially suggested, three U.S. defense officials said Monday.
Naval commanders had hoped to carry out another “freedom of navigation” exercise in the region as early as this month as part of a plan to regularly send vessels into the area and exercise what the United States views as its rights under international law, officials have said.
But the Obama administration, which is weighing the risks of raising tensions with Beijing at a time when Washington is focused on the fight against the Islamic State group, has not approved the next such patrol, said the officials, who asked not to be named.
One official said the next U.S. Navy sail-by was likely to come in January, in what would be the second direct challenge to the territorial limits China effectively claims around seven artificial islands in one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.
In a challenge to China’s island-building program, Manila has asked the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to affirm its right to areas within 200 nautical miles of its coastline, under the terms of a U.N. convention.
“The Arbitration Tribunal’s case between the Philippines and China could become the latest opportunity to demonstrate lawful access to regional prosperity for all nations,” Swift said.
Beijing so far has rejected the court’s jurisdiction and has boycotted the hearing. Rulings are supposed to be binding on its member countries, which include China. But the tribunal has no powers of enforcement and its verdicts have sometimes been ignored.