Beijing’s deployment of surface-to-air missiles to an island in the Paracel chain of the contested South China Sea is a potential game changer that could ultimately lay the groundwork for the creation of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the disputed waters, analysts say.

U.S. and Japanese officials on Wednesday confirmed reports that Beijing had dispatched a surface-to-air missile (SAM) system to Woody Island in the Paracels. Media reports had earlier said two batteries of the HQ-9 system, along with radar-targeting arrays, had been spotted.

Regarding the deployment, Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said late Wednesday that the “unilateral move by China to change the status quo cannot be overlooked.” Nakatani, in a meeting with the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, vowed that Japan would continue to support the U.S. military’s so-called freedom of navigation operations.

Security experts say Beijing could be using the missile deployment to test reactions by Tokyo, Washington and regional claimants after the U.S. Navy conducted its second freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea last month.

“The deployment of SAMs to Woody Island may indicate that China is preparing to declare an ADIZ over northern parts of the South China Sea that would be administered from the Paracels,” said Ian Storey, an expert on the South China Sea at Singapore’s ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

Storey said such an ADIZ could be extended to the southern areas of the South China Sea, hundreds of kilometers southeast of the Paracels, as the facilities on its reclaimed atolls in the Spratlys become operational.

This analysis echoed comments by Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA).

“The deployment of anti-air missiles is a big step toward an ADIZ in the South China Sea, but it is still too early due to China’s insufficient air-domain awareness,” Kotani said. “China needs to deploy radar and missiles in the Spratly Islands, too.”

In 2013, Beijing stoked condemnation from Tokyo and Washington when it declared an ADIZ over an area in the East China Sea that includes the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands. They are also claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu islands.

The ADIZ is widely seen as a place marker. China does not enforce the zone, either because it lacks the capabilities or because it doesn’t want to raise tensions with Japan and other countries, said Storey.

But China has also been warning away planes from waters in the South China Sea, where it built airstrips on man-made islets, part of its massive land-reclamation projects in the area.

“Beijing has been hinting for some time about setting up the South China Sea ADIZ ‘at an appropriate time,’ ” said June Teufel Dreyer, a professor at the University of Miami. “What better time than when they’re protesting U.S. ships and planes ‘intruding’ on China’s sovereignty over the islands?” Such a move, however, could leave Beijing overstretched, especially as it grapples with more pressing economic concerns.

“My sense is that due to the complex response to the East China Sea ADIZ, China would not set up, at least for now, a South China Sea ADIZ rather than pursuing two ADIZ at one time, complicating more its own environment,” said Shen Dingli, an associate dean at Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies in Shanghai, in an email.

Still, with its growing footprint in the waters there, enforcing such a zone could prove far more manageable for Beijing than the East China Sea ADIZ, where its limited capabilities and fears of provoking a military confrontation with Japan and the United States have prevented it from doing so.

In contrast to the East China Sea, Beijing also occupies and has built a sprawling network of dual-purpose bases, airstrips and installations across much of the South China Sea, leaving it in a far better position, said Richard Javad Heydarian, an assistant professor at De La Salle University in Manila.

While such a Chinese-declared ADIZ would be widely condemned across Asia as unneeded, provocative and tension-inducing, smaller nations that are unable to counter Beijing’s move would likely accept it, analysts say.

And with no regional claimant state able to check Beijing, “this means that much will depend on how the U.S. and its key allies like Japan would respond in military terms,” Heydarian said.

“With much of Japan’s energy imports and trade passing through the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea, Tokyo clearly abhors the potential of Chinese-dominated sea lines of communications in East Asia,” he added.

JIIA’s Kotani agreed: “The South China Sea is an important air commercial communications line for Japan. Freedom of overflight is essential,” he said. “If China controls the South China Sea and its airspace, that would make the military balance more favorable for China, which will have a huge impact on U.S. extended deterrence and the security of Japan.”

But any attempt by Tokyo to more actively join the mix would invariably trigger a strong reaction from Beijing, which has cast a suspicious eye on moves by its World War II enemy to beef up its forces and loosen the constitutional constraints that have been placed on its military.

Wu Shicun, president of China’s influential National Institute for South China Sea Studies, has said that Beijing should avoid unilaterally declaring an ADIZ in the area, but said certain factors — namely Japan — could change that approach.

In a conference organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in July, Wu said China should guarantee freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, boost the process of creating a code of conduct in the area with the countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and ensure civilian use of facilities on reclaimed islands.

However, Wu said the picture could change if Japan became a factor.

“Japan wanted to join the U.S. in conducting air patrols over the South China Sea, and recently criticized Chinese reclamation in the area,” he told the Voice of America on the conference sidelines. “If one day Japan joined the U.S. in conducting close surveillance patrols, it would force China to respond accordingly.”

Some experts also say that a South China Sea air zone would set a precedent for more robust action by Beijing in the East China Sea, with a focus on its increasingly aggressive moves near the Senkaku Islands.

“Having further marked the South China Sea, more pressure on the East China Sea will be a logical next ‘slice-in-the-salami’ tactic that has served Beijing so well,” the University of Miami’s Dreyer said.

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