China is considering declaring a new air defense identification zone over the South China Sea, according to a Japanese report yesterday, a move likely to fan tensions in an area riven by territorial disputes.
The report comes months after Beijing caused consternation with the sudden declaration of an air defense identification zone above the East China Sea, covering islands at the center of a sovereignty row with Tokyo.
It also comes as countries in the region grow increasingly concerned about what they see as China’s aggressive territorial claims.
Working-level officials in the Chinese air force have drafted proposals for the new zone, which could set the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島), also claimed by Taiwan, at its core and spread over much of the sea, the Asahi Shimbun said, citing unnamed sources, including from the Chinese government.
The draft was submitted to senior Chinese military officials by May last year, the daily said.
Beijing claims the South China Sea almost in its entirety, even areas a long way from its shoreline.
The countries surrounding the sea have competing and overlapping claims to the area and are in dispute with Beijing, including over the ownership of islands.
The draft says the zone would at a minimum cover the Paracels, and could go as wide as the majority of the South China Sea, the newspaper said.
Beijing is still deliberating the extent of the zone and considering the timing of an announcement, the paper said.
Japan, South Korea and others reacted with anger in November last year when Beijing unilaterally declared an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea.
China demanded that all aircraft provide flight plans when traversing the area, give their nationality and maintain two-way radio communication, or face “emergency defensive measures.”
The US said it would not comply, and, in what was seen as a challenge to Beijing, promptly flew military planes through it.
The zone covers the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台列嶼) claimed by Taiwan, China and Japan — where they are known as the Senkakus.
Beijing’s sudden declaration bolstered claims that China is throwing its growing military weight around. Observers say the establishment of a similar zone in the South China Sea is a likely move for Beijing.
In November last year China’s Hainan Province passed a rule requiring foreign fishing vessels to obtain permission to enter its waters, which it defined as 2 million square kilometers of the sea’s 3.5 million square kilometers. That rule took effect at the beginning of this year, drawing protests from the US, the Philippines and Vietnam.
China announced last month that it would base a 5,000-tonne civilian patrol ship on Woody Island (永興島, Yongxing Island) in the Paracels and begin regular patrols.
In December last year, US Secretary of State John Kerry warned China against any move to declare an air defense zone over the South China Sea.
Additional reporting by staff writer