Experts Fear a Defensive Zone Over China’s Homemade Islands

April 29, 2015 Updated: May 8, 2015

The Chinese regime is now building airstrips on its homemade islands in the South China Sea. While China’s neighbors largely reject its claims to the region—and particularly its efforts to simply build new territory—many experts are worried about what problems the islands will bring in the near future.

One likely possibility is that the Chinese regime will try to do in the South China Sea what it did in the East China Sea, and establish an air defense zone it can defend militarily, according to Dr. Andrew S. Erickson, an associate professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College.

Erickson presented the case in a recent article in The National Interest. As a founding member of his department’s China Maritime Studies Institute, his words carry some weight.

Satellite images posted by intelligence company IHS Jane’s on April 15 show the Chinese regime has built a 1,650-foot section of a runway on Fiery Cross Reef. It noted the final runway could be close to 10,000 feet long, which “would be well within the parameters of existing People’s Liberation Army Air Force runways on mainland China.”

Erickson notes the runway is just one of many the Chinese regime is constructing on its homemade islands. Similar projects are underway on Subi Reef and possibly Mischief Reef, and similar developments are being made on the nearby Paracel Islands.

“One logical application for China’s current activities: to support a SCS [South China Sea] Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Beijing already established an ADIZ in the East China Sea in November 2013,” Erickson writes.

“Many nations—including the U.S.—have established such zones to track aircraft approaching their territorial airspace (out to 12 nautical miles from their coast), particularly aircraft apparently seeking to enter that space,” he writes.

Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, pitched the concern on April 15 that the Chinese regime’s projects “could eventually lead to the deployment of things, such as long-range radars, military and advanced missile systems,” and these systems could be used to defend a new air defense zone.

The Chinese regime has sent mixed messages. On April 17, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei claimed the newly built islands will not be primarily used for its military. However, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, said “China’s construction of military facilities in the area ‘is only natural and necessary and that they are purely for defensive purposes.'”

The issue at hand is that nations are allowed to declare air defense zones around their territories. The Chinese regime is complicating this factor. In the East China Sea, it included long-held Japanese territory in its air defense zone, and in the South China Sea, it brings the new question of how self-built territory factors in.

“But while any coastal state is legally entitled to announce an ADIZ, the way in which China has done so in the East China Sea is worrisome,” Erickson writes. “China threatens still-unspecified ‘defensive emergency measures’ if foreign aircraft don’t comply with its orders—orders that an ADIZ does not give it license to issue or enforce physically.”

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