Ever since China declared an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea in late 2013, many wondered whether China would do the same over its claims in the South China Sea. Early this year, the United States began to publicly warn China that it would not recognize a Chinese ADIZ over the South China Sea. Given the timing of its admonition, Washington seemed like it was preparing for a Chinese reaction to a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on a Philippine case against China’s South China Sea claims, which is expected in May.
China’s declaration of an ADIZ over the East China Sea caught many off guard. Perhaps to prevent a recurrence, the United States chose to signal China in advance. Naturally, China’s defense ministry retorted that Beijing had every right to establish an ADIZ over the South China Sea. After all, Beijing considers the area within its “nine-dash line” claim to be sovereign Chinese territory. Yet the ministry’s spokesman was quick to add that China had no plans to set up such an ADIZ.
Apart from placating the United States, there are other reasons why China might hold off from establishing an ADIZ over the South China Sea. They deal with Malaysia and Indonesia, two of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) most influential members. Whereas China’s ADIZ over the East China Sea could narrowly target Japan, a Chinese ADIZ over the South China Sea would impact not only China’s two main antagonists there, namely the Philippines and Vietnam, but also all of the other disputants in the region, including Malaysia and Indonesia.
For decades, Malaysia has played down its dispute with China over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Rather than confront China, as the Philippines and Vietnam have, Malaysia has tried to use quiet diplomacy to persuade China of the benefits of a multilateral resolution to the region’s conflicting claims. That strategy reached its high point in 2002 when China signed ASEAN’s non-binding declaration of conduct in the South China Sea. Although China has since violated the declaration’s terms, Malaysia has stuck to its strategy. Even after China twice held amphibious exercises off Malaysian-claimed James Shoal, only 80 km from Malaysia’s coast, Malaysia chose not to escalate tensions with China.
Similarly, Indonesia has minimized its dispute with China. So much so that Indonesian diplomats routinely repeat that their country has no territorial dispute with China. Though technically true—the two countries have no land features in dispute—what they do have is a maritime dispute. China’s nine-dash line claim encompasses some of Indonesia’s richest offshore oil and natural gas fields. (See hatched area on map.) Plus, China has increasingly made its presence known in the area. Just last month, two Chinese coast guard vessels again clashed with an Indonesian fishing boat. Such incidents have alarmed the Indonesian military. But Jakarta has hesitated from providing it with the resources needed to strengthen its defenses near the Natuna Islands.
A Chinese ADIZ over the whole South China Sea would definitely infringe on the claims of both Malaysia and Indonesia. That would be difficult for China to explain away. It would also run counter to China’s long-time strategy in the South China Sea. For years, China has sought to divide its Southeast Asian opponents and convince them to individually settle their disputes with it. A Chinese ADIZ over the whole South China Sea does little to achieve those ends. Rather, it could do the opposite. It would put Malaysia and Indonesia in the same boat as the Philippines and Vietnam, pushing them together. Moreover, such an ADIZ would undercut those who believe that by taking a less combative approach toward China their countries can avoid its assertiveness in the region.
On the other hand, if China declared an ADIZ over the northern half of the South China Sea—overlapping only the claims of the Philippines and Vietnam—it could reasonably argue that its aim was only to protect itself from airborne intrusions from those two countries. Both are building stronger air forces to counter China. That would at least encourage some in Malaysia and Indonesia. Still, a partial Chinese ADIZ would likely make many others uneasy that China could someday extend its ADIZ further.
Given the potential for an ADIZ (whether whole or partial) to unify ASEAN’s core states against it, China has good reason to be cautious. Ultimately, a Chinese ADIZ could create more problems for China than it solves. It could push Malaysia off the fence or turn Indonesia into a full-fledged disputant. It could also make it harder for surrounding countries, like Australia and Japan, to give China the benefit of the doubt. Finally, it would likely undermine the goodwill that China has been trying to generate across Southeast Asia through its “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
More broadly, a Chinese ADIZ over the South China Sea would mark a real change in China’s approach to not only its maritime dispute, but also East Asia. It means that China has become confident enough to act, regardless of the international consequences. If so, China will have indeed stood up. But it might learn that standing up can expose one to stiffer headwinds.
 “China says no need to ‘gesticulate’ over South China Sea plans,” Reuters, Mar. 31, 2016.
Every week that passes seems to bring a new development in the South China Sea. Over the last few months, China finished the construction of military-grade airfields on several of the islets that it occupies in the Spratly archipelago and began building radar installations on them. It also deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems and combat aircraft to the Paracel Islands. Meanwhile, the United States twice sailed a guided-missile destroyer close to Chinese-held islands and flew a pair of B-52 bombers nearby to assert freedom of navigation through the area. It also began to monitor the region with P-8A maritime patrol aircraft. Possibly even more worrisome to China, the United States has begun to discuss conducting joint patrols in the South China Sea with not only the Philippines, a country that disputes China’s claims, but also India, one of China’s Asian rivals. Yesterday, the U.S. Pacific Command announced that it would hold a joint naval exercise with India and Japan, China’s other Asian rival, in the waters just north of the South China Sea later this year.
While tensions have rapidly risen in recent months, the escalation in words and actions between China and the United States started years ago. Many Chinese cite 2010 as a turning point. During that year’s ASEAN Regional Forum, Southeast Asian leaders publicly rebuked China over its assertiveness in the South China Sea. Not believing that they would do so on their own accord and witnessing then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s behavior at the forum, China came to believe that the United States orchestrated the criticism. From that, China concluded that the United States had abandoned its long-held position not to take sides in the South China Sea dispute and had chosen to interject itself into it.
Certainly by late 2014, the United States had decided to challenge China’s actions. Diplomacy had failed to deter China from incrementally elbowing its Southeast Asian neighbors out of the South China Sea. Indeed, China had become even more assertive, violating the spirit of the ASEAN code of conduct that it signed in 2002. Rather than refraining from actions that may change the status quo, China stepped up its military presence, increased the number of its coast guard patrols, and even encouraged its fishermen to fish in the South China Sea with subsidized fuel. That eventually led to a months-long standoff between Chinese and Philippine naval vessels near Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
Despite the risk of such incidents, both China and the United States have good reasons to stand firm. First and foremost, Beijing believes that the islands in (and possibly the waters of) the South China Sea are its own. Plus, Beijing knows that no Southeast Asian country without American support can prevent it from dominating those waters. Chinese observers also have cause to question how strong that American support really is. Over the last half decade or so, the United States has proven itself to be diffident whenever it has been confronted with an international crisis, from the Middle East to Eastern Europe. However vigorous American rhetoric might sound, Beijing may believe that if push came to shove, the United States would back down.
On the other hand, Washington believes that it must ensure freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, not only for the sake of international norms, but also to shore up the credibility of its security commitments in Asia, which have been dented by its past prevarications. Ultimately, those commitments help to underpin the prevailing international order, which China occasionally chafes against. But many American observers wonder whether China would really challenge that order, not least of which because China has so greatly benefited from it. Why risk upsetting it now, especially when China’s economy is teetering. Surely, Chinese leaders, whose primary interest has always been to stay in power, are more concerned about the rising unrest inside China than the South China Sea. However confrontational China may seem, Washington may believe that if push came to shove, China would back down.
All of this would be even more alarming were it not for Sino-American cooperation in other areas, such as this week’s United Nations sanctions on North Korea. But how far apart the two countries are on the South China Sea was made clear in February when the United States openly warned China of “consequences” if it did not heed the decision of an arbitration court in The Hague where the Philippines brought a legal case against China over its South China Sea claims. That divide was again evident at a press conference last week during which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, while standing next to one another, cautioned each other’s country not to take further provocative actions in the South China Sea. Neither diplomat appeared to acknowledge the other’s caution. As most observed, it seemed as if they agreed to disagree.
Days later, the heated rhetoric between China and the United States resumed. At a Congressional hearing, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, testified that “China seeks hegemony in East Asia.” In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei accused the United States of “maritime hegemony and muscle-flexing on the sea.” Neither comment raised many eyebrows. Perhaps that is because we have become inured to the rhetorical exchanges. But the longer the escalation of words and actions continues, the higher the stakes will be if an incident does occur. It will be harder for China and the United States to back down without real costs. But thus far neither side seems in the mood for compromise.
 Sanjeev Miglani, “U.S. plans naval exercises with India and Japan in Philippine Sea,” Reuters, Mar. 2, 2016.
 “China slams U.S. admiral’s South China Sea remarks,” Xinhua, Feb. 26, 2016.
More lines were drawn in the East China Sea (or rather in the skies above it). With very little notice, China declared a sweeping air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over much of the East China Sea as of November 23 at 10:00 a.m. (local time). Countries typically use such zones to expand their early warning against potential airborne threats. Aircraft that fly within those zones are required to file flight plans and identify themselves to the appropriate authorities; otherwise those authorities may dispatch combat aircraft to intercept them. China’s new ADIZ covers an area that contains two disputed maritime territories. The first consists of islands, called Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, that are claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo. The second is a small submerged rock, called Suyan in China and Ieodo in South Korea, which is claimed by both Beijing and Seoul. South Korea has operated a small research station there for the last decade. Shortly after China’s new ADIZ went into effect, its air force mounted its first patrol of the area; Japan spotted a Y-8 maritime patrol aircraft and a Tu-154 electronic intelligence aircraft over the East China Sea.
China’s demarcation follows a widely-publicized 18-day Japanese military exercise across southern Japan. The exercise was one of an annual series that is normally held in November. In 2011, a similar exercise was held that involved 35,000 Japanese personnel and the U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington. After tensions were ratcheted up between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku Islands in September 2012, Tokyo shelved that year’s exercise. This year’s iteration involved 34,000 military personnel, six ships, and 360 aircraft. The exercise featured air defense missile battery drills on Okinawa as well as an amphibious landing, supported by a Japanese helicopter carrier, on the uninhabited atoll of Okidaitōjima, about 250 miles southeast of Okinawa.
China’s new ADIZ requires aircraft operating within the zone to register flight plan, radio, transponder, and logo information with its Civil Aviation Administration. But the Ministry of National Defense is the “administrative organ” responsible for the zone. Aircraft that violate the rules of the ADIZ could prompt the Chinese air force to adopt “emergency measures.” Japan maintains a similar zone around its nearby islands.
Certainly China’s action has reverberated across the Asia-Pacific. As one South Korean official noted, the focus of South Korea’s upcoming talks with China will likely shift from strengthening trust and cooperation to the ADIZ controversy. Even Australia summoned the Chinese ambassador in Canberra to express its concern. But those that could ultimately end up facing a similar situation might be the countries of Southeast Asia. In announcing the ADIZ, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense referred to its authority over “the area enclosed by China’s outer limit of the territorial sea.” Of course, there is another “territorial sea” that China claims—the South China Sea. Within that sea, China has many other maritime disputes. The most recently visible one is between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, which led Manila to challenge China’s maritime claims before a United Nations tribunal earlier this year. There are also the long-running disputes between China and Vietnam over the Paracel Islands as well as among China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam over the Spratly Islands. But by mentioning the “outer limit of the territorial sea” China also revives a long-dormant dispute between it and Indonesia over the waters along the northern edge of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, which have offshore natural gas fields. China’s use of an ADIZ to strengthen its sovereignty claims in the East China Sea suggests that it might try a similar approach in the South China Sea too. China’s Ministry of National Defense spokesman, Colonel Yang Yujun, failed to dispel such notions when he said that China would establish additional zones “at the right moment after necessary preparations are completed.”
More practically dangerous for the United States is that China’s ADIZ creates a situation in which American reconnaissance aircraft, which regularly patrol the East China Sea, may increasingly encounter Chinese fighter jets. (Such patrols have long annoyed China.) To appreciate the danger, one needs only to recall the April 2001 incident when a Chinese J-8 fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea. The EP-3 was forced to land on China’s Hainan Island where it was interned, triggering a two-week long crisis between China and the United States.
Little surprise, then, that China’s demarcation drew an immediate response from the United States. Secretary of State John Kerry commented that he was “deeply concerned” and that China’s “unilateral action constitutes an attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea”; Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel flatly stated that the United States would not recognize China’s control over the zone. To make that point clear, the United States ordered two B-52 bombers to make an unannounced transit of the East China Sea on November 26. No doubt, Washington also wanted to set a precedent for American combat aircraft to operate within the zone without notifying Chinese authorities.
Tokyo took an equally stern tone. Prime Minister Shinzō Abe said that Japan would not recognize the zone. He even persuaded Japan’s major airlines not to file flight plans with Chinese authorities on routes through the East China Sea. Both Japan and South Korea flew military aircraft into the zone on November 27. Soon after, China announced that it sent more aircraft to patrol the area, including a KJ-2000 early-warning aircraft and several J-11 and Su-30 fighters.
Most likely, China is trying to use the ADIZ to not only respond to Japan’s recent military exercise, but also enhance its sovereignty claims to the East China Sea (and the islands within it). Earlier, it began maritime law enforcement patrols in the area to do the same. Hopefully, China understands that it is setting the stage for future conflict if it pushes its claims too hard. Already, China has chipped away at the credibility of its own diplomatic charm offensive in Southeast Asia, which Beijing just launched at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in October. Even Southeast Asian countries with less-apprehensive views of China, like Indonesia and Malaysia, cannot help but take notice.
China’s establishment of its air defense information zone in the East China Sea raises another question: why take such a step now? Is it because China feels the need to immediately respond to Japan’s recent military exercise; or because Beijing knows that the world’s attention is focused on the successful international negotiations in Geneva over Iran’s nuclear program rather than its actions in the East China Sea; or because China sees the Obama administration’s commitment to its Asian allies as fundamentally weak (and wants to test it)? Thankfully, Beijing decided to declare its ADIZ after Japan concluded its military exercise. At least, there will be a full year before Japan conducts its next set of military drills in the area.
In early September, China hosted the 10th China-ASEAN Expo in southern Chinese city of Nanning. There, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang glowingly characterized the last ten years as a “golden decade” of growing economic ties between China and the countries of Southeast Asia, all of which are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). He now foresaw that the next decade would be even better—a “diamond decade.”
Together with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visits to Indonesia and Malaysia and his high-level meetings at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum that would soon follow, Li’s remarks appeared to mark the start of a new charm offensive in Southeast Asia. China’s last charm offensive, despite Li’s depiction of a “golden decade,” had sputtered out at the end of that decade, overshadowed by China’s growing economic and political assertiveness on land and at sea. Although China’s disputes with its maritime neighbors have drawn more attention, China also managed to irritate its neighbors across Indochina. Its state-owned companies operating in the region have often been high-handed. Their cavalier attitude towards displacing communities and destroying cultural relics contributed to Myanmar’s decision to halt the construction of the Myitsone dam in 2011—the first time any Southeast Asian country blocked a major Chinese-sponsored infrastructure project. Meanwhile, China’s unrestrained hydroelectric development on its upstream stretch of the Mekong River has worried many downstream communities in Southeast Asia, even though their governments seldom voice their concerns.
Worse for China’s image is its maritime disputes with Southeast Asia, which were put under an international spotlight in 2010 when several ASEAN countries confronted China about its behavior in the South China Sea at the 17th ASEAN Regional Forum. Regional concerns over Chinese intentions were further stoked by China’s increased interference of Vietnamese oil exploration ship; its months-long standoff with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal in the spring of 2012; and its escalatory attitude toward Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands since September of that year. Finally, many believed that Chinese pressure directly contributed to rifts in ASEAN itself, when the 2012 ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting failed to produce any progress on a multilateral code of conduct for the South China Sea or even issue a closing joint communiqué that mentioned one. Surely such rising concerns have led the Philippines and Vietnam to accelerate the pace of their military buildups.
However, many Chinese believe they see the hand of the United States in China’s recently contentious relations with Southeast Asia. They see American policy as either creating the environment that has allowed Southeast Asian countries to resist China’s interests or directly encouraging those countries to resist them. In either case, they see the flare up of disagreements between China and its ASEAN neighbors as evidence of a larger American effort to contain China’s rise. Hence, Beijing may believe that initiating a new charm offensive could not only capitalize on Southeast Asia’s continued view of China as a source of economic growth, but also diminish the effect of that American effort. Whether Beijing’s new tack is momentary or longer lasting is too early to tell.
Yet China has already met with some success, perhaps enhanced as a result of President Barack Obama’s absence from the APEC meetings. While it was not the first time an American president was absent, Obama’s absence came at a time when many Southeast Asians were looking for reassurance of American commitment. At the very least, it allowed Xi to become the center of attention. And Xi brought China’s “diamond decade” message with him. He pointed out several areas of opportunity: upgrading China’s free-trade agreement with ASEAN, improving communications between China and Southeast Asian countries, strengthening financial cooperation across borders, developing maritime cooperation, and enhancing Chinese cultural exchanges with Southeast Asia.
Even before the APEC meetings, Xi visited Malaysia and Indonesia. He heralded the advent of “strategic cooperative relationships” with those countries and was the first foreign leader to address the Indonesian parliament. Then after the APEC meetings, Li arrived in Southeast Asia to continue China’s diplomatic efforts in Brunei, Thailand, and Vietnam. In Brunei, Li discussed joint energy development. In Thailand, he championed plans for a high-speed railway project connecting China to Singapore that has lain dormant for many years. And in Vietnam—a country that has its share of maritime disputes with China—Li and his Vietnamese counterparts announced that the two countries would set up a joint maritime development working committee to ease the tensions in the South China Sea.
For their part, ASEAN countries seem to have responded positively (and possibly opportunistically). Malaysia—perhaps sensing that the Philippines has, for the moment, halted China’s broader assertiveness in the South China Sea—may now view Chinese overtures as a chance to boost its own economy. And while Thailand still sees the high-speed railway project as too expensive for it to undertake alone, it has encouraged China to contribute to the financing.
However, the one country in the region that China has not courted is the Philippines. Instead, China seemed to go out of its way to isolate it. Indeed, it is a strategy that some Chinese foreign policy scholars have advocated. As if to underline the point, after China issued invitations to all the heads of state in Southeast Asia to attend the China-ASEAN Expo, it rescinded its invitation to Philippine President Benigno Aquino III. And so, the Philippines was the only ASEAN country not represented at the event. And so, even as China seeks to emphasize its kinder, gentler side, its steely side remains. Relations between China and Southeast Asia may yet improve during the “diamond decade,” but mostly on Chinese terms.
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