China unlikely to declare Air Defence Identification Zone over South China Sea, says expert

China is unlikely to declare an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea anytime soon, an expert said on Friday (June 3).
China is unlikely to declare an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea anytime soon, an expert said on Friday (June 3).PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - China is unlikely to declare an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea anytime soon - despite speculation that such a move is imminent - because it does not have the military capability to enforce it, a South China Sea expert said on Friday (June 3).

While China has expanded its presence in the South China Sea, it does not have the logistics and maintenance presence there for a prolonged deployment of military assets necessary to enforce an ADIZ, said Emeritus Professor Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy.

"They've got the runways there but they haven't really got the fuel storage, they haven't got the maintenance (capabilities required) for an aircraft carrier to stay there for long periods of time, there's just no way they can do it," said Prof Thayer, who was responding to a question by reporters at the opening press conference on Friday evening at the start of this year's International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue.

The question came after a South China Morning Post report on Wednesday (June 1) that cited a source close to China's People's Liberation Army saying that Beijing is planning to launch an ADIZ in the South China Sea, following American "provocations" in the disputed region.

Last month (May) saw the third United States freedom of navigation operation take place in the Spratly islands, followed later by an incident where a US surveillance aircraft faced what American officials called an "unsafe" intercept at the hands of two Chinese fighter planes.

The South China Sea issue is also expected to dominate discussions this weekend at the Shangri-La dialogue, an annual gathering of defence chiefs from around the world.

Prof Thayer said the lack of actual capability to implement anything beyond a "verbal, rhetorical" ADIZ indicates that China is "playing mind games" designed to put pressure on regional states and keep them in line.

IISS' panel of experts were also asked whether China's tougher sanctions on North Korea showed a Chinese change of heart towards their belligerent neighbour.

Despite tighter sanctions and a seeming willingness to enforce them, China's calculus towards North Korea has not changed, said Professor Aidan Foster-Carter, who is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University.

"As I understand it, as seen from Beijing, there is something worse than this nasty, noxious, nuclear neighbour, and that is the disintegration and collapse of that nasty, noxious, nuclear neighbour," he said.

China still views North Korea's collapse and the fallout from that as worse than the status quo, he added.

"If that calculus ever changes, we might be in a new situation. I don't see it changing yet," he said.