China-ASEAN pact important to Japan

Rising tensions risk stability in key sea corridor

by Maya Kaneko

Kyodo

An accord between China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to defuse tension over territorial disputes in the South China Sea is of considerable importance to Japan, which itself is engaged in spats with China in the East China Sea.

Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto told reporters in Indonesia, where he attended ASEAN-related events, that he welcomes an accord between China and ASEAN on the guidelines to govern behavior in the South China Sea “as a step forward” to resolving the rows based on laws.

Matsumoto also told a session of the annual ministerial meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum that the South China Sea is important to Japan as well, as the safe passage of its commercial ships needs to be ensured by maintaining the stability of the sea area, according to a senior Japanese official.

The South China Sea contains some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and is believed to be rich in oil and gas.

With the accord on the guidelines, China and ASEAN are now urged to forge a legally binding code of conduct in the contested sea to ensure the peaceful resolution of disputes. But the process may be heavy going as China says it will enter into a binding agreement only when certain conditions are met.

Japan, which is not directly involved in maritime conflicts in the sea area, has expressed its “strong interest” in Beijing’s recent naval operations in the region resulting in showdowns with such countries as Vietnam and the Philippines, apparently linking them to its own disputes with China in the East China Sea.

Japan-China relations were severely strained last September when Japan Coast Guard cutters had a run-in with a Chinese trawler they were attempting to shoo away from the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands. The uninhabited islets are also claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu.

The two countries also have clashed over gas field development in the East China Sea, with negotiations slow to progress after they agreed to explore resources together.

Ken Jimbo, associate professor at Keio University’s Faculty of Policy Management, pointed out that China’s bid to secure maritime interests is a function of its patriotism and self-confidence shared by its military, fisheries, transport and coast guard authorities against the background of the nation’s rapid economic growth.

“Those authorities will not budge from their position, as they did in the past, and will remain assertive. They are against shelving territorial disputes and seeking joint development of resources,” Jimbo said.

He said Japan can indirectly address rows between China and some ASEAN members in the South China Sea by contributing to capacity building of coast guard authorities and improvement of port facilities in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

“To prevent conflicts in the sea, Japan can provide Southeast Asian nations with advanced equipment such as patrol boats and utilize its official development assistance to upgrade port facilities in those countries, so that U.S. Navy vessels can call at them,” he said.

Jimbo said Japan should consider such support despite its almost blanket ban on the export of weapons and policy of not spending its ODA for military purposes.

As an exception to the arms embargo, Japan decided in 2006 to provide three patrol boats to Indonesia as part of its ODA to help the nation fight piracy and deter terrorism in the Malacca Strait.

Tomotaka Shoji, a senior research fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies, said he believes friction between China and claimant states will continue in the South China Sea, as Beijing will not likely abandon its sovereignty claim based on historical recognition and keep trying to expand its naval presence.

He doubted whether efforts by China and ASEAN to set up the code of conduct will be truly effective, because China could continue covert attempts to establish its de facto control of the contested sea areas.

“After all, concerned countries should implement day-to-day measures to build confidence and avert accidents that could stoke tension,” Shoji said.

The research fellow said Japan can only indirectly engage in the territorial rows in the South China Sea through its security alliance with the United States, since it would cause a large impact both in terms of politics and history if its Self-Defense Forces advance to the sea area on their own to curb China’s influence.