Risk of South China Sea Strife if Beijing Attempts Defense Zone

TAIPEI, TAIWAN An air defense zone declared by Beijing, or any effort to stop civilian ship traffic, would raise the risk of conflict in the disputed South China Sea after years of calm, because either move would inconvenience day-to-day operations, scholars who follow the region say.

Five other militarily weaker maritime claimants have watched without major protest as China tests bombers, holds naval drills and considers nuclear power stations in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea. Last week Chinese news media reported tests of the country's first domestically made seaplane, for possible use in the disputed waterway.

But other governmentsBrunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnamwould step up their protests if Beijing declared an air defense identification zone or began forcibly directing traffic of the numerous privately owned ships that transit the sea, said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

It would be a direct confrontation to the principle of freedom of navigation, he said. So far, China's position is that 'I'm taking control in several spots in the South China Sea,' but China has never disrupted the freedom of navigation, military and civilian, so far.

Countries with competing claims now let one another use the open sea as long as vessels from one avoid islets held by the others. Commercial planes overfly the sea around the clock, and at least one-third of the world's marine shipping passes through it, along with 1.6 million fishing boats.

Air defense identification zone

Beijing has not declared an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, but the other countries worry because in 2013 it established a zone in the disputed East China Sea. China said that declaration empowered it to direct air traffic over the waterway claimed in part by Japan and Taiwan, but analysts say the zone has been unenforced.

I think the move that people believe will be a game changer is an ADIZ for the South China Sea, said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington. When ADIZ was first announced for the East China Sea, people have been chasing the Chinese to ask that question.

China may be holding off any South China Sea air defense zone until able to implement it, Sun said. Tension with the United States, which occasionally passes navy ships through the South China Sea to assert its freedom of navigation, might also motivate China to mothball any ADIZ plans, she added. The two powers are locked in a trade dispute.

The East China Sea zone is more of a political and symbolic practice, Huang said.

Beijing calls about 90 percent of the South China Sea its own, citing historical records to back its claim. The sea that stretches from Taiwan to Singapore is prized for fisheries, shipping lanes, oil and gas.

But non-Chinese fishing fleets could face trouble from their Chinese counterparts or from search-and-rescue boats with government backing, Chong said. Some scholars call these fleets, some backed by coast guard vessels, a militia.

Fishing fleets, humanitarian assistance vessels, these are the ones that are pushing China's claims, Chong said. There is where the militarization is happening, except that it cannot be called militarization.

Source: Voice of America