Beijing’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea in November 2013 came as a surprise; similar steps in the South China Sea should not surprise anyone.
In November 2013, China took its neighbors by surprise with the declaration of an Air Identification Zone (ADIZ) that included airspace over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands, which are under Japanese control but claimed by China and (less fiercely) Taiwan. Eighteen months later, with the recent Chinese artificial island reclamation in mind, it might not be too long before Beijing declares an ADIZ over large portions of the South China Sea (SCS) to foster China’s claims within so-called nine-dash line (an “updated” version has 10 dashes, stretching up to Taiwan’s east coast).
The most concerning development is the ongoing work by China on Mischief Reef (9°55′N 115°32′E) and Fiery Cross Reef (9°37′N 112°58′E). In both cases, satellite imagery has revealed substantial construction work there. At Fiery Cross Reef, this also includes an airstrip up to 3,000m long — long enough to accommodate most of the combat planes in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) inventory. Altogether, six features are being developed simultaneously. Land reclamation is not illegal, and other claimants have engaged in similar activities before, including Taiwan. However, the scale and tempo of Chinese efforts is unprecedented and concerning in the context of Beijing’s more assertive behavior in the past six years.
Effective control by China of Mischief Reef is testimony to how significantly the balance of power has shifted in the region. When in late 1994 Chinese landed on Mischief Reef and erected structures they claimed to be shelters for fishermen, Manila reacted in March 1995 by dispatching its military to expel Chinese personnel and tear down the structures. Twenty years later, Beijing is in firm control, and instead of shelters for fishermen, it is building an airstrip with great potential for power projection. If the East China Sea (ECS) ADIZ was worrying, recent developments in combination with the potential declaration of an ADIZ in the South China Sea should be exponentially so.
In the SCS, more than in the ECS, an ADIZ would be connected to developments right above the sea level, because in the former, Beijing is in control of some of the island features and soon enough it will have sufficient capabilities to project force that the other claimants cannot match, unless the U.S. gets involved. Moreover, Beijing will use those capabilities to strengthen its vast territorial claims and try to impose its restrictive understanding of the ADIZ and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) regimes.
Defined by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an EEZ is granted to every coastal state and is defined as a zone extending 200 nautical miles from the coastal baseline; that can extend to 350 nautical miles off the continental shelf in the case of seabed resources. Within the said zone, the state has exclusive rights to resources in the water and under the seabed. However, an EEZ is not an extension of sovereign territory, which is closer to China’s interpretation of EEZ. For example, Beijing claims that any foreign military activity inside a Chinese EEZ is illegal. Naturally, that is beyond what the EEZ is intended to be, and it is no surprise that Beijing would be hard pressed to find grounds for its claims in UNCLOS. China’s understanding of its ADIZ closely matches its understanding of the EEZ. While the norm for other states’ ADIZ is to require identification for inbound aircraft, Beijing demands identification even from planes that are merely passing through with no intention to enter China’s airspace. It is naturally problematic, considering that an ADIZ typically extends well beyond the limits of a state’s airspace.
In short, ADIZs and EEZs with “Chinese characteristics” present serious limitations to the customary rules that govern both sea and airspace. One of the consequences of Beijing’s success in the SCS could therefore become a direct challenge to traditional understandings of freedom of navigation, be it at sea or in the air.
The SCS dispute, however, is not just about asserting sovereignty. An EEZ is of course important in its primary meaning, i.e. exclusive access to resources for respective coastal or island states. In this particular case, resources are not as much hydrocarbons, which may or may not be in abundance in the SCS. Instead, the first and foremost resource for the claimants at the moment is fish.
With infrastructure and capabilities to support Beijing’s claims in place, there is little that could prevent China from pulling the ADIZ trick again. Indeed, soon enough, the only thing that would prevent a Chinese declaration of an ADIZ in the SCS would be its own self-restraint. Needless to say, this has not been an abundant commodity in China’s inventory lately. Moreover, Beijing could in its calculations count on private commercial interests that would comply with Beijing demands, and so would many states whose interests are not directly affected but would be should a crisis in the area close it for shipping and result in extended shipping routes.
An ongoing legal case initiated by Manila two years ago could give the Philippines the higher moral ground (and as such it is a case worth pursuing). But in the face of PLA deployments in the area, having the higher moral ground may be all that remains. It should be clear that Beijing has decided to pursue its claims by means of fait accompli and implied use of force, expecting that Manila and Hanoi will eventually back off. The land reclamation that transforms features that were submerged into islands is of course legally problematic because only naturally formed islands that can sustain life on their own and therefore eligible for EEZ claims (UNCLOS articles 60 and 121). However, without the willingness of all parties to resort to arbitration, pursuing justice through legal means is complicated. And if there is one thing that Beijing is consistently rejecting, it is third-party settlement. Hence the limits of international law in the face of determined actor, who also happens to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Where Taiwan does stand in South China Sea? For one, it is one of the claimants, even though the least visible one despite the status of the Republic of China government as the creator of the original 11-dash map. Taiwan has a habit of occasionally letting itself heard to raise its profile among other claimants. Examples involves live fire drills in 2012 and 2014, the upgrading of facilities on Taiping island or the recent announcement that recently acquired P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft will commence patrols over the SCS. Some more hawkish legislators have even proposed deploying the first Tuo Jiang-class missile corvette, equipped with a navalized version of the HF-2E land attack cruise missile, to the area, steps that would be unnecessarily escalatory.
For all that it’s worth, Taiwan has always flatly rejected any cooperation on the SCS sovereignty issue with Beijing (despite the idea being somewhat popular among some academics in Taiwan). However, other states may not always understand that “when two do the same, it might not mean the same.” It should be well understood that despite seemingly identical claims with Beijing, Taiwan has never deliberately looked for confrontation with its neighbors, and perhaps it is not the best time to give the opposite impression.
Defense-wise, Taiping is of little consequence for Taiwan’s needs, and a Chinese ADIZ in the SCS would further marginalize Taiping’s significance. Some may argue that a base in the SCS is important for the protection of Taiwan’s sea lines of communication (SLOC), i.e. trade routes that link trade-dependent Taiwan with the rest of the world. However, Taiping cannot support large vessels and ongoing expansion work will only permit the accommodation of frigates with up to 3,000 tonne displacement. Even if efforts to further expand port facilities on Taiping were undertaken and successfully completed — and that is a very hypothetical if — surface vessels sent by Taipei would hardly be a match for PLA Navy (PLAN) capabilities operating from bases in Hainan and (in the near future) at other SCS bases, including the PLAAF air base on Fiery Cross Reef.
It could be argued that China is not the only potential threat to Taiwan’s SLOC. However, what are the chances that Hanoi or Manila would block or seize commercial ships heading to Taiwanese ports? In all likelihood, if Taiping ever come under military threat, it would be from the PLA. Since it is highly doubtful that Beijing would make a move against Taiping without using force against Taiwan itself, any forces deployed on Taiping would instantly become isolated in larger-scale operation against Taiwan proper and thereby indefensible against locally deployed PLA assets. Thus, allocating excessive financial and human resources to Taiping is rather wasteful behavior.
Should Beijing really declare an ADIZ over the SCS, Taiwan would have few options at its disposal. One of them would be to conclude ongoing negotiations with the Philippines on fisheries, mirroring a similar agreement with Japan signed in April 2013. The potential agreement does not necessarily need to involve fishing grounds in the Spratly Islands to clearly signal to Manila that despite the similarity of its claims with Beijing, Taipei seeks negotiations and mutual benefit and not confrontation and intimidation. It is not far-fetched to conclude that Taiwan could reach an agreement with the Philippines before China takes the next big step.