What is at stake? China’s bid for air supremacy in the South China Sea

The aircraft carrier, USS John C. Stennis, which US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited as it was ploughing through the South China Sea. US Navy

In order to project its strength in the South China Sea, China is likely to enforce an air defence identification zone over the area’s contested waters. For regional players, this is a distinctly aggressive move that will up local tensions and could have significant repercussions says one Filipino lawmaker.

By Rasa Sarwari

China is raising the stakes in the South China Sea dispute as it ups the pressure in its bid to be the region’s leading power.

According to Wu Shicun, head of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, China has a rightful claim to the area and “reserves the right” to issue an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) once it has completed construction of its navy’s second aircraft carrier.

Though Wu Shicun is not a government official, his comments at Beijing’s military forum are noteworthy. His proposals usually become the official policy of the government and are more than just rhetoric. This may well mean China’s next step is to entrench itself in the Pacific Ocean for its own strategic interests.

ADIZs are used by numerous countries, such as South Korea and Japan, to maintain access over their airspaces. However, an ADIZ over a large territory such as the South China Sea could be highly problematic as ownership and control of the features below are disputed between nine countries.

Projecting a position of strength

Vasily Kashin, a military expert and senior researcher at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, believes China’s moves are the latest reaction to the Hague ruling and shows Beijing would never want to appear weak in front of other regional claimants.

However, previous attempts to establish an ADIZ which required all foreign aircraft to identify themselves have not been successful. In 2013, China decided to enforce an ADIZ over the East China Sea but America flew two B-52 bombers through the airspace without challenge soon after. Taiwan, which claims Itu Aba, the largest island in the Spratlys, has already said its crews will ignore any zone China imposes and was moving supplies to reinforce its munitions on its main base.

From another angle, Beijing may also want to use the coronation of a defence zone as a chance to show of its second aircraft carrier; although it will not be ready until 2018. Add to that the time needed to train crew and pilots, and it may be ten years before it is fully operational.

According to the team at BMI Research this will not be a barrier as, “China will most likely continue to consolidate its position in the South China Sea through the construction of artificial islands capable of housing military facilities, and most probably by declaring an ADIZ over the sea in the near future.”

What’s at stake?

In the background to these developments, the South China Sea continues to be a hotbed of conflict as claimant nations race to take disputed islands and turn them into military outposts which project their own power. China has already built a myriad of such facilities, with the one on Woody Island (Yogxing island according to China), seen as one of the most important with a 2,700m runway and several large hangars. This airbase is equipped with fourth generation HQ- 9 surface-to-air missiles and can host numerous J-11 fighter jets.

This installation could play a key role in enforcing a Chinese ADIZ as fighter jets launched from the island would be able to quickly respond to foreign aircraft and escort them out of the area. As such it is a key asset; though in wartime it would be too far from mainland China to be effective and remains vulnerable to attack.

In the bigger picture, these aggressive moves by China have the potential for a much larger impact on the countries in the region than just military spending. As Antonio Carpio, a senior associate justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, recently explained, unless China is challenged in its increasingly expansionist tactics then the rule of naval cannon risks becoming the standard.

In that case, “resources that we need that we have been putting for education, infrastructure, social services will have to be realigned and devoted to acquiring warships and missiles, and we don’t want to do that,” he explains. In that context, this is about more than air defence; it is about defending a way of life.