China is tightening its claim to disputed waters in the South China Sea but it faces a greater challenge in enforcing its authority in the skies above them.
Beijing has been warning planes away from reefs it reclaimed in the South China Sea and has said it reserves the right to announce an air defense identification zone over the area.
It’s expected to boost its military presence after the US this week sailed a warship into the 12-nautical mile zone around China’s man-made islands.
But Bloomberg reports that controlling the seas may prove easier for China than controlling the air, even with further patrols expected.
The US warship USS Lassen did not venture far inside the 12-mile zone, where China’s coast guard has built a ring of deterrence.
China has already faced difficulty enforcing an air defense identification zone it set up two years ago covering islands disputed with Japan in the East China Sea, which is closer to the Chinese mainland.
Setting up and maintaining a zone over the much larger South China Sea — which stretches along the coast of Vietnam, across to the Philippines and down to Singapore and Indonesia — would be even harder.
“The South China Sea is a completely different beast,” said Li Jie, a senior researcher at the Chinese Naval Research Institute in Beijing.
“The territorial disputes there involve many more countries, and if you take out a map, the topographic features are much more complex. It’d be more provocative in the eyes of the Americans.”
Since setting up the East China Sea air zone — through which the US swiftly flew B-52 bombers — China has quietly stopped seeking to actively enforce it, according to military officials and policy advisers who have followed the issue.
That’s despite initial warnings the military might use force against planes that failed to follow rules including the requirement to file flight plans.
The air zone is technically in operation in the sense China’s air force patrols it, but it has never taken “defensive emergency measures” set out in the initial announcement, which could include interceptions of planes.
The People’s Liberation Army lacks the ground-based air surveillance and a detailed joint operational plan between the air force and navy to “fully and effectively” administer the entire zone, according to a former senior PLA officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
There are also strategic considerations: If China were to intercept aircraft that didn’t follow its rules, it could potentially risk a clash with a country like Japan, which has a well-trained, efficient air force, or the US.
“It is my understanding that China has never sought to fully enforce the ADIZ as it pertains to military aircraft,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“This is partly a function of insufficient capability,” she said. “It is also because China does not want a military confrontation with Japan.”
The initial announcement of the air zone brought some confusion. While the rules were supposed to apply to all aircraft entering the area, the defense ministry later said commercial flights by foreign airlines would not be affected.
The East China Sea zone only served to strengthen ties between Japan and the US. Visiting Japan in April 2014, President Barack Obama said the islands were covered by the US-Japan security treaty and the US would oppose any attempt to undermine Japan’s control of them.
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