A senior foreign ministry official spoke on Wednesday about the possibility of implementing an Air Defence Identification Zone over the sea, a move that would be widely regarded as an effort to stamp its sovereignty over a series of islands it claims. An ADIZ requires all aircraft flying through it to identify themselves to the controlling government.
“China has the right to establish ADIZs,” said Ouyang Yujing, director of boundaries and oceanic affairs for the foreign ministry, in an interview published in a Chinese newspaper.
“Whether or not China will establish a South China Sea ADIZ will depend on factors such as whether China’s air safety is under threat, and the seriousness of the threat,” he said. However, he added, the area remained stable for the time being.
While not the first time a Chinese official had broached the topic of an ADIZ, experts say it was significant that it has come at a time of heightened tensions this month following an overflight of China-claimed islands by a US P-8 spy plane carrying a camera crew from CNN.
The US is also considering flying surveillance missions even closer to the islands, as well as sailing warships within a few miles of them, as part of a new, more robust US military posture in the area.
Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said the re-emergence of the prospect of a new ADIZ was a calculated signal from Beijing.
“It is significant for a senior Chinese official to not categorically deny that the ADIZ is an option [for the South China Sea],” he said, “and it’s significant for a Chinese official to link this to the actions of other states. In effect they are laying the diplomatic groundwork for such a move if China is not happy with the way the tensions play out.”
A South China Sea ADIZ would be its second over a disputed maritime area. In November 2013, China stunned its neighbours when it announced an ADIZ over the East China Sea covering islands that are also claimed by Japan.
Gary Li, an independent expert on international security matters in Beijing, said the announcement of a possible ADIZ appeared to be a “tit for tat” in response to the US overflight this month.
“This is probably them saying ‘if you’re going to carry on doing that, then we’re going to push forward this plan — now we might actually do it’,” he said.
Experts link the airstrip on Fiery Cross to eventual ambitions to set up an ADIZ. “I don’t see them going ahead with this until they can enforce it, and the only way they could enforce it is with this runway,” said Mr Li, although he said basing interceptors would be an “extremely provocative step”.
When it announced the East China Sea ADIZ, China was unable to enforce it days later when the US flew two B-52 bombers through the zone.
On Tuesday the Chinese People’s Liberation Army unveiled a muscular new strategic doctrine that envisaged increasingly far-flung military operations, including “open-seas defence”.