The United States is closely watching reports that Beijing is planning to declare a so-called Air Defense Identification Zone in the skies above the disputed South China Sea, the American air force commander in the Pacific told reporters Wednesday.
A Chinese move to claim an ADIZ in the sea region could have a negative impact on the ability of nations to fly, sail and operate in a free and open Indo-Pacific â€œwherever international law allows,â€ Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. said during a special teleconference briefing from Hawaii.
â€œIt really goes against the rules-based international order, and thatâ€™s concerning not only for PACAF and the United States, but I would say many of the nations in the region,â€ Brown said, referring to a potential Chinese ADIZ in the South China Sea, while he fielded questions from reporters across the region about a range of issues related to his Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) command.
â€œAnd this kind of impinges upon some of the international airspace, and it impacts not just the PACAF, but all the nations in the region,â€ he added. â€œAnd so, itâ€™s important for us to pay attention to something like this.â€
The air force commander said he was also â€œconcerned by increasing opportunistic activity by the PRC [Peopleâ€™s Republic of China] to coerce its neighbors and press its unlawful maritime claims while the region and the world is focused on addressing the COVID pandemic.â€
â€œWe are committed to upholding the rules-based international order to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific that protects the sovereignty of every nation, ensures the peaceful resolution of disputes without coercion, and promotes free, fair, and reciprocal trade, and preserves freedom of navigation and overflight,â€ Brown added.
His comments came amid news reports that two U.S. Navy aircraft-carrier strike groups were sailing together in the Philippine Sea â€“ on the doorstep of the South China Sea â€“ and had launched dual flight drills.
Beijing: â€˜Every country has the rightâ€™
Recent reports have pointed to the possibility that Beijing is planning to declare an ADIZ in the South China Sea.
On Monday, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs was asked to confirm a report that China was â€œgetting more likelyâ€ to establish such an aerial zone in the strategic and potentially mineral-rich waterway.
â€œIâ€™m not sure what the source of this report is, but Iâ€™d like to stress that every country has the right to establish an ADIZ and to decide whether to establish an ADIZ based on the intensity of the threats it faces in air defense security,â€ spokesman Zhao Lijian said, referring to a report in The Economist.
â€œIn the light of the air security threats China faces above relevant waters of the South China Sea, China will carefully and prudently study the relevant issue taking into account all factors,â€ he added.
An ADIZ is a zone where all civilian aircraft must identify themselves and announce their location. In such a zone, civilian aircraft are tracked and identified before further entering into a countryâ€™s airspace, although an ADIZ does not restrict travel in and out of its limits, nor does it usually apply to military aircraft.
In practice, an ADIZ in the South China Sea would likely mean that civilian planes would need to report their presence to Chinese air traffic control, and could potentially be intercepted if they didnâ€™t. However, China has not yet taken such action in an ADIZ it established seven years ago above the East China Sea, farther north.
Experts have said that enforcing such a zone, which would cover a vast area of the South China Sea, would present huge logistical challenges for the Chinese air force and could provoke a diplomatic backlash.
Other nations maintain airstrips on islands they occupy in the contested region. In the Spratly Islands, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan are among countries that have built runways on territories they occupy.
China, for its part, has for years been expanding its territorial claims in the sea and has installed weapons systems and established military outposts, while deploying maritime militia vessels to the South China Sea.
The maritime region is claimed in whole or in part by China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Indonesia urges firmness by ASEAN
Meanwhile in Jakarta on Wednesday, Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi urged members of the ASEAN bloc to take a firm stance regarding Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Retno was speaking after taking part in an online meeting of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It took place two days before ASEAN leaders are to meet in an online summit Friday.
â€œRegarding the Nine-Dash Line claim in the South China Sea, Indonesia conveyed that ASEAN needs to show solidity regarding respect for the international legal principles including UNCLOS 1982 and all its mechanisms,â€ Indonesiaâ€™s top diplomat said in a statement.
Retno was referring to a boundary on Chinese maps that delineates the extent of Beijingâ€™s claims in the sea and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
She also urged major powers to contribute to peace and disability in the sea region.
â€œCollaboration and cooperation must continue to be prioritized, not rivalry,â€ Retno said.
Indonesia is not among the countries with contending territorial claims in the South China Sea but tensions arose between Jakarta and Beijing in early 2020 and 2016 over the presence of Chinese fishing boats in waters off Indonesiaâ€™s Natuna Islands.
Last week, Retno said there was â€œno reason to negotiateâ€ with China as she reaffirmed Jakartaâ€™s stance that it has â€œno overlapping claims with Chinaâ€ in the maritime region.
Her earlier comments came days after Indonesia sent another diplomatic letter on the topic to United Nations Secretary-General AntÃ³nio Guterres, in response to one submitted by China to the U.N. chief 10 days earlier.
In its letter, Beijing had invited Jakarta to negotiate what it called â€œoverlapping claims of maritime rights and interestsâ€ in the South China Sea.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-afiliated news service.