|Photo from Youtube|
Commentary of an Academic
(Copyright @ 2018 by Chester B Cabalza. All Rights Reserved).
The recent test on the freedom of the sky in the South China Sea above the airspace of Subi reef southwest of the Philippines’ occupied Thitu island and Mischief reef an atoll turned into a fake island by the People’s Republic of China drew an escalating conflict as China continuously fortify its ‘Great Wall’ in the sky.
In a monthly operational routine of oblique sky patrol by a Philippine Air Force plane over Mischief reef, a radio warning from the Chinese navy transmitted a message to the Filipino pilot to “leave immediately or bear responsibility for all the consequences” in a menacing tone. However, the same warning signalled to the US reconnaissance naval aircraft five times in a normal tone conducting lawful military surveillance accorded by the international law around the heavily militarized Spratlys archipelago. This is a first time in recent months under the complete two-year old tenure of President Rodrigo Duterte after he seriously altered his political will to a soft China policy.
The asymmetrical cautionary notice can be concealed as alarming despite Manila’s unceasing efforts to warm up a closer bilateral engagement with Beijing. Given the recent external security development, how come China inversely treats the Philippines over the routine overflight in the South China Sea? Could a code of conduct repair the recent squabble between two countries above the contested airspace?
In 2009, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) concocted of building a ‘Great Iron Wall in the Blue Sky’ in celebration of its 60th anniversary. This fourth great wall took off from China’s ancient great wall to elevate a terrestrial strength as a civilization-state that later on in post-modern history China purportedly flexed a naval power through massive reclamations of man-made islands in the South China Sea turning to a great wall at sea. It also marked a niche in their cyberspace generating the great firewall. The four instalments of the dragon’s great walls is a holistic approach to establish a grand strategy to fulfil a rejuvenated dream aspired to tame supremacy by protecting and controlling intently their land territories, maritime domains, cyber and air spaces.
China unilaterally established and deeply enforced its own Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea over a maritime dispute with Japan and now with claimant-countries in the Spartly islands which garnered unilateral objection from major powers in the Indo-pacific region. It even imposed ADIZ without consultation from smaller neighbours that carry direct capabilities on land-based radar coverage, aerial refuelling, and early warning and control. Chinese ADIZ certainly was used as a buffer zone that delineated tasks to report a flight plan to their government, maintain radio communication, and announce warning to China’s armed forces in adopting defensive emergency measure to respond to foreign aircraft that do not cooperate in the identification. However, this military strategy does not grant state sovereignty over airspace.
Viewing at it as China’s self-proclaimed rights in expanding outright supervision overflight and a constant exercise for China’s flexing an aerial power to enforce a susceptible anti-access area denial (A2/AD) strategy. It also nurtures a military aggression against the freedom of the sky to protect Chinese core interests in the South China Sea and China’s expanding maritime territories from intermittent incursion by the US military. Literally translated as, a way of the dragon trying to evict the eagle from its nest, creating havoc damage that may lead to regional instability and insecurity.
During the third state-of-the-nation address of President Duterte, the populist leader recognized the right of innocent passage and the air above the artificial islands. Only this month, the Philippine military aircraft grieved over intimidation after receiving at least 46 times warnings since the second half of 2017. Presidential spokesman Harry Roque boldly spewed to the media that the Chinese cannot stop unfazed Filipino pilots who expressed unfathomable nationalism by willing to die for the sake of asserting sovereignty while patrolling the skies of Philippine-claimed territories.
South China Sea, a portion of it claimed by Filipinos as the West Philippine Sea, is a geopolitical tinderbox bearing profound strategic value and opulent natural resources. A code of conduct in the militarized zone should be agreed upon by claimant-countries. After the July 2016 arbitration award in favour of the Philippines gained a momentum, the jarring road to finalize and adopt a code of conduct in the South China Sea between China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) slow motioned. Described as a holy grail, signifying a high desire but unattainable direction, that may be used by China to legalize its hegemonic trajectories while subverting the spirit of the code of conduct. Hence, the appeal to multilateral consensus-based decision-making order should progress geared towards a rules-based norms in the South China Sea that covers the right to exercise freedom of overflight over the international airspace.