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South China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone

Reports of Chinese plans to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone over the disputed South China Sea resurfaced in news media amid rising tensions in the region. But experts remain skeptical that China would take such a provocative, hard-to-enforce measure. Writing in the South China Morning Post, Minnin Chan reported 31 May 2020 that China had planned for an ADIZ over the South China Sea since 2010. Her article quoted an unnamed Chinese military source as saying the ADIZ would be announced at “the right time” and cover the entirety of the Spratly, Paracel, and Pratas Islands. China itself has not announced an ADIZ declaration is imminent.

The US and China established mutual trust mechanisms to report major military operations to each other and set a code of safe conduct during naval and air force encounters during Obama's state visit to China in 2014. Annexes on "notification of military crisis" and "encounters in the air" were later signed in September 2015.

An Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) requires all incoming aircraft, including civilian planes, to register with Chinese authority to fly in the air route. There is no rule against China establishing an ADIZ. However, what other states would be concerned with was how China would administer its ADIZs.

China announced an ADIZ in the East China Sea two years ago, which caused grave concerns by the United States. On June 05, 2016 US Secretary of State John Kerry urged China not to “unilaterally” announce an ADIZ over portions of the South China Sea. “We will consider an ADIZ over portions of the SCS as a provocative and destabilizing act,” Kerry. Kerry’s remarks came after Asian defense ministers gathered in Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue where delegates debated as to where China is planning the creation of an ADIZ.

Anxieties have been growing in the region over China’s aggressive approach to its territorial claims in disputed waters in the South China Sea. China was also ratcheting up demands that the US should stop surveillance flights in the airspace above the South China Sea.

In an encounter in early 2016, the US Defense Department said two Chinese fighter jets intercepted in an unsafe manner a U.S. reconnaissance plane on a routine patrol in international airspace over the South China Sea, raising a "red flag" on implementation of existing Confidence Building Measures (CBM) between the two countries. The measures were agreed to under previous rounds of annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) that covered the rules of behavior for safety of air and maritime encounters. Both countries concurred to avoid accidents while their assets are operating in close proximity in places like the South China Sea.

Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said the U.S. is seeking to “expand the scope of cooperation and establish broader frameworks” beyond what the two countries have with the Navy and the Air Force. "Both sides do need to discuss this incident and understand what happened and talk about how they will avoid any of these kinds of very unsafe intercepts in the future,” according to Bonnie Glaser, regional expert from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Beijing responded to the call of the United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, to restrict the creation of a national air defense zone in the South China Sea by urging the US and Japan to stop making baseless accusations against China. “We do not create problems, but are not afraid of trouble,” the deputy head of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army of China, Sun Jianguo, said. The Chinese foreign ministry urged the United States and Japan to stop blaming China regarding the South China Sea. “Countries from outside should honor their commitments and not make irresponsible remarks on issues involving territorial sovereignty,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said in Beijing in response to remarks by US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and his Japanese counterpart Gen Nakatani at a security summit in Singapore. “China will not bear the consequences, nor will it allow any infringement on its sovereignty and security interest, or stay indifferent to some countries creating chaos in the South China Sea.”

On 01 June 2016, the South China Morning Post citing sources close to the People’s Liberation Army, reported that Beijing is ready to impose an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea in case the US continues its "provocative" actions in the area. “If the US military keeps making provocative moves to challenge China’s sovereignty in the region, it will give Beijing a good opportunity to declare an ADIZ in the South China Sea,” the newspaper quoted one of its sources as saying without revealing his name.“Regarding when to declare such a zone, it will depend on whether China is facing security threats from the air, and what the level of the air safety threat is,” the country’s defense ministry said in a statement sent to the newspaper.

By July 2015 US and international security experts expressed concerns that it may just be a matter of time before China establishes an air defense identification zone over disputed waters in the South China Sea. China had been rapidly reclaiming land and making artificial islands in the South China Sea during the previous year, causing strong reaction in the U.S. and many other countries.

Senator John McCain, chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, said island building was just the beginning. McCain said the next step for China will be to militarize those islands and declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea to further its sovereignty claims. “They build runways; they are going to put weapons there, and the next thing you will see the Chinese do is when an American aircraft [flies by], whether being a commercial craft or what, they will say ‘identify yourself’ – establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone, which then means territorial sovereignty,” McCain said at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

At a 2015 House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on America’s security role in the South China Sea, Andrew Erickson, a U.S. Naval War College professor, said he believed China will declare an ADIZ within two years. Erickson said the facilities that China is building in the area includes a 3,000-meter-long runway on the reclaimed land on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. The most logical application of this runway, he said, would be to support a Chinese ADIZ in the near future.

The US Defense Department expressed its concern to Chinese diplomatic officials about a 19 August 2014 incident in which an armed Chinese fighter jet conducted a dangerous intercept of a US Navy P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft. US military officials said the Chinese aircraft made several close passes, coming at one point within 10 meters of its plane. “The Chinese jet … passed the nose of the P-8 at 90 degrees with its belly toward the P-8 Poseidon, we believe to make a point of showing its weapons load out,” Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said. “They flew directly under and alongside the P-8, bringing their wingtips … to within 20 feet and then conducted a roll over the P-8, passing within 45 feet.”

The latest incident took place 220 kilometers (137 miles) from China's southern island province of Hainan. The US Deputy Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said what the Chinese jet did was "obviously deeply concerning provocation".

China believes the US should take measures to avoid such incidences in the future. "If the United States really hopes to avoid impacting bilateral relations, the best course of action is to reduce or halt close surveillance of China," Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said in a statement on the ministry's website. "According to different situations we will adopt different measures to make sure we safeguard our air and sea security of the country," Yang said at a monthly news briefing. The American patrols have "seriously threatened China's security interests," he added.

An editorial in People's Daily Online (China Daily) August 25, 2014 said "Mutual trust is the foundation of all good relations in the world. However, the constant and frequent reconnaissance missions that US naval vessels and planes have been conducting near China's coastal waters and airspace do nothing to convince the Chinese authorities and the Chinese people that the US is sincere in claiming it wants to build mutual trust with China. Neither does the US' rebalancing of its military might to Asia suggest a friendly approach."

At a regular Foreign Ministry press conference on Jan. 4, 2016, Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry Spokesperson was asked whether China plans to declare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over parts of the South China Sea. In response to this question, Hua said that as for whether or not China will set up an air defense identification zone, the decision will be made based on a full assessment of the security situation and China's needs. "We believe that the overall situation in the South China Sea is stable," Hua said.

Declaring an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) is the right of a sovereign country and other countries should not "point their fingers" on this, China's defense ministry said 01 April 2016 in response to reports that the US would not recognize an exclusive zone in the South China Sea. "Whether and when to do it depends on whether and to what extent China faces air security threat," Chinese national defense ministry spokesperson Yang Yujun told a press conference in Beijing. US Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said Wednesday that the US has informed China it will not recognize an ADIZ in the South China Sea and would regard such a move as "destabilizing".

China said on 13 July 2016 that it will decide whether to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea in accordance with the level of threat. "The ADIZ is not a Chinese invention, but rather that of some big powers. If our security were threatened, of course we have the right. It depends on our comprehensive judgment," said Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin at a press briefing at the Information Office of the State Council.

When asked whether China hasn't set up an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea because the PLA Navy isn't capable of that yet, a high-ranking Chinese military official responded that the setup of ADIZ is a nation's sovereign matter. Like many other countries that have set up ADIZ, China will decide how and when to set it up according to actual situations. The Chinese delegation held a press conference for foreign media at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore on 04 June 2016. Rear admiral Guan Youfei, director of the Office for International Military Cooperation of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC), answered questions about China's stance on the South China Sea arbitration initiated by the Philippines and whether an ADIZ would be set up in the South China Sea.

In reply to a question about a BBC journalist being threatened when he flew over the Meiji Reef and Zhongye Dao in 2015, Guan Youfei said, "you used the word 'threat', but in my opinion, it's not a threat when a sovereign nation inquired what the purpose of the plane was.The U.S. military vessel's mistaken attack of an Iranian passenger plane in the 1980s could be called a threat." When asked whether China hasn't set up the ADIZ in the South China Sea because the PLA Navy isn't capable of that yet, Guan Youfei stressed a statement previously made by the Chinese military and added that China will decide how and when to set it up according to actual situations." He further explained that the situations included whether China's security is threatened and whether the ADIZ is necessary in the region.

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force conducted a combat air patrol in the South China Sea in July 2016, which will become a "regular" practice in the future, said a military spokesperson on 19 July 2016. The PLA sent H-6K bombers and other aircraft including fighters, scouts and tankers to patrol islands and reefs including Huangyan Dao, said Shen Jinke, spokesman for the PLA Air Force. During the mission, the aircraft carried out tasks including aerial scouting, air combat and island and reef patrol, fulfilling the patrol's objective, Shen said.

China claims that the 9-Dotted Line is China's maritime national border. As such the waters enclosed by the 9-Dotted Line are already China's sovereign internal waters or inland waters. This means the airspace above these sovereign waters is already China's sovereign airspace. Therefore, China has the right not only to demand notification from aircrafts entering this airspace but also has the right to demand that they not enter this airspace unless and until they have requested and received permission from the Chinese authorities to enter this airspace.

A Chinese state institution warned in November 2016 that Beijing was ready to set up an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the contested South China Sea, giving it the authority to screen foreign aircraft. But analysts say any enforcement would anger other countries without deterring traffic. That measure would follow a series of steps to control the movement of foreign ships in the same sea, underlining China's intent to hold its vast maritime claims

The government-run Chinese think tank, the National Institute of South China Sea Studies, said that because of an estimated 700 US surveillance patrols in the sea in 2015, Beijing was ready to set up the air zone unless Washington stopped the activity. China could feasibly set up an air zone, called an ADIZ for short, using radars if it built up Scarborough Shoal west of the Philippines, said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at The University of New South Wales in Australia. That installation would give it the third corner of a triangle connecting the Paracel and Spratly island chains.

Norway and the United Kingdom, India, Pakistan and Canada (CADIZ) are some of the 20 countries which maintain ADIZs as well as the United States. South Korea and Japan have set up ADIZs that extend well beyond their territorial airspace and overlap others. International law does not prohibit States from establishing air identification zones in the air space adjacent to their territorial air space. There has not yet emerged a recognized practice of “contiguous air space zones” analogous to contiguous zones established on the high seas, enabling states to exercise certain legal controls over aircraft flying outside territorial air space. The present system of Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ) employed by the United States extends to the air space above the open sea and is limited to the purpose of identifying aircraft.

The U.S. Navy's Commander's Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations specifically instructs U.S. military aircraft to ignore the ADIZ of other states when operating in coastal areas: "The United States does not recognize the right of a coastal nation to apply its ADIZ procedures to foreign aircraft not intending to enter national airspace nor does the United States apply its ADIZ procedures to foreign aircraft not intending to enter U.S. airspace. Accordingly, U.S. military aircraft not intending to enter national airspace should not identify themselves or otherwise comply with ADIZ procedures established by other nations, unless the United States has specifically agreed to do so."

Procedures applicable to United States military aircraft penetrating a foreign ADIZ on a flight plan or intending to penetrate the sovereign airspace of the ADIZ country are published in Section C of the DoD Enroute Supplements. Military aircraft transiting through a foreign ADIZ without intending to penetrate foreign sovereign airspace are not required to follow these procedures. Operations near the national territory of Russia or in proximity to Russian military forces are covered in paragraph 7-13, Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities Between the US and Russia.

United States Government policy is to routinely and frequently exercise United States overflight rights in International airspace. Flight operations in International airspace are exempt from diplomatic clearance requirements. Further, military aircraft operating in International airspace (whether within or outside a Flight Information Region (FIR) or Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), or transiting over water through International straits or archipelagic sea lanes are not legally subject to the jurisdiction or control of Air Traffic Control authorities of a foreign country. However, United States military aircraft are obligated under Article 3 of the Chicago Convention to exercise "Due Regard for the safety of navigation of civil aircraft."

As a matter of United States policy, DoD Directive 4540.1, 13 January 1981, "Use of Airspace by Military Aircraft and Firings Over the High Seas," requires United States military aircraft operating over the high seas (or transiting over water through International straits or archipelagic sea lanes) to observe International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) flight procedures when practical and compatible with the mission.

Consistent with International law, the United States Government recognizes territorial sea claims up to a maximum distance of 12 nautical miles from coastal states baselines drawn in accordance with International law. Diplomatic overflight clearance is official permission (consent) to operate in sovereign airspace. Consent of the coastal state is required for flight within territorial airspace, except when transiting International straits or exercising the right of archipelagic sea lanes passage.

A contiguous zone is an area seaward of the territorial sea in which the coastal state may exercise the control necessary to prevent or punish infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration, and sanitary laws and regulations that occur within its territory or territorial sea. The contiguous zone may not extend beyond 24 nautical miles from the baseline from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured (i.e., 12 nautical miles territorial sea plus 12 nautical miles contiguous zone). In the contiguous zone ships and aircraft, including warships and military aircraft, of all states enjoy the high seas freedoms of navigation and overflight.

United States military aircraft intercepted by foreign aircraft should comply with established DoD flight Information Procedures and International Intercept Procedures. If intercepted in territorial airspace of a foreign country, they comply with direction to depart territorial airspace or comply with direction to land, provided landing can be safely accomplished (e.g., suitable airfield). Upon landing, they are to immediately contact United States embassy for assistance. If intercepted in International airspace, International straits, or archipelagic sea lanes, aircraft should continue on planned routes of flights. Advise foreign authority and/or interceptor that it is a United States military aircraft and in accordance with International law, the aircraft is operating in International airspace, exercising the right of transit passage of an International strait, or exercising the right of archipelagic sea lanes passage.

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