China’s maritime exercises, ADIZ and strong US response in South China Sea

Apprehensions have been cast with regard to Chinese possibility of declaring Air Defence Identification Zone(ADIZ) in the South China Sea(SCS), and for this purpose it has been conducting exercises as well as patrol missions to counter any possible challenge to its strategic space. The latest exercises which the PLA Navy conducted between July 1-5, was meant to showcase its versatility and approach towards controlling the whole of South China Sea. The location of the exercises was very close to the Paracel islands and also critical island features in the South China Sea.

The US also deployed its USS Nimitz Carrier battle group (comprising of 60 fighter aircrafts on USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan) and gave a befitting response to Chinese adventurism. The synchronised sail of the strike group and flypast of advanced fighter aircrafts clearly showed that even if China intends to announce ADIZ then it would be met with strong US resistance. A Twitter war ensued between China and US with regard to deployment of the US aircraft carriers in the SCS and China proclaiming that it can hunt down the two aircraft carriers through its carrier killer missiles namely DF-21Ds or DF-26s. However excessive show of force by the US has put China on a conciliatory mode, and it has tried to amend its visibly assertive posture in the region. From the US perspective, the response in terms of large scale deployment of US submarines, destroyers, and surveillance aircrafts along with advanced fighter aircrafts have foxed China. China never comprehended that this show of brute power and it dispelled the myth that US navy is reeling under COVID-19 effects.

These countermeasures which have been undertaken by the US Navy should have been taken on much earlier so that China could not consolidate its position in the South China Sea. Chinese aggressive posters have impacted the fisherman of the littoral countries because of unilateral fishing ban, affected oil and gas exploration activities of the other claimant countries, particularly Vietnam and Malaysia. It has also triggered rapid militarisation of the contested region.

The full spectrum deployment of aircraft carriers and other naval assets by the US preceded by the statement by Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State who said that the US needs to redeploy its troops from Europe to the Indo Pacific region. In the wake of developments in South China Sea, India China border tensions in eastern Ladakh, and intimidating tactics adopted by China against Taiwan and in East China Sea, thereby annoying all its neighbours. The US through its pronouncements during the last one decade has proclaimed to develop ‘pivot to Asia’ policy, followed with Indo-Pacific strategy and redeployment of troops to this region. This buttresses the fact that China cannot have a free whaling time in these contested waters. The US would force the concept of freedom of navigation and challenge the Chinese claim of EEZ around its occupied features in SCS.

In fact, China has also been contemplating of declaring Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) and has been conducting reconnaissance to know the viability and compliance. Though, any such move would drain Chinese PLA resources particularly in terms of scrambling fighter jets. Building a compliance mechanism so that military fighter jets and even civilian airliners can comply with the Chinese dictates would be another herculean task. 

Increasing Chinese paranoia can be attributed to the fact that during the ASEAN online meeting much stress has been given with regard to following the UNCLOS in resolving the South China Sea dispute and this stands as a reinforcement of the Permanent Court of Arbitration(PCA) ruling which rejected Chinese claims of EEZ in its occupied islands features. The PCA ruling has highlighted the significance of the freedom of navigation and no right of exclusive economic zone for those features in South China Sea which cannot sustain a human habitation. The PCA ruling would be making its fourth anniversary on July 12 this year and its is expected that China would try to show that it has military strength and naval power to claim its EEZ. International pressure and open condemnation would be effective counter measures.

Increasing US presence in the contentious waters have put pressure on China to accept the global norm of open seas and also the unity of the ASEAN members with regard to extended continental shelf and projecting their unified stance in the UN, highlighted the fact that fissiparous tendencies within ASEAN are a matter of past. Chinese activities and militarization of these islands also contravenes the agreement between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama where China agreed that it would not militarise the SCS islands. This complete disregard of the agreement between the top leadership of US and China also projects that China is in no mood to abide by the international obligations and the code of conduct which even if promulgated in future would be ignored by Chinese military brass.

In conclusion one can very well say that there are three important aspects which got highlighted during this year. ASEAN unity on the subject matter and a strong rebuttal of Chinese claims in South China Sea was a good projection of ASEAN utility and centrality. US naval reinforcements and strong statements in favour of littoral countries as well as military show of strength in these waters have dispelled myth about Chinese invincibility. Lastly, the ASEAN dialogue partners have also taken a strong stance on Chinese aggression and have given strong rebuttal of its intimidating tactics. This attention and international pressure needs sustained support.

Prof. Pankaj Jha
Prof. Pankaj Jha
Pankaj Jha is faculty with Jindal School of International Affairs, O P Jindal Global University, Sonepat. He can be reached at pankajstrategic[at]