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As U.S. eyes South China Sea patrols, will Japan play a role?

by

Staff Writer

As Washington steps up its activities near man-made islands built by Beijing in disputed South China Sea waters, some experts are saying that Japan, with its newly empowered military, could play a larger role in the increasingly fraught quarrel.

The United States, which is reportedly weighing “freedom of navigation” patrols within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands, has pointed to nearby shipping lanes that it says are vital to the free flow of trade.

Media reports earlier this month said the U.S. had decided to conduct the patrols, which Washington uses to challenge territorial claims in oceans and airspace it considers excessive.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea recognizes 12-nautical-mile territorial limits on naturally formed islands but does not recognize such limits on submerged reefs that have been reclaimed.

The officials did not specify a date for the patrols.

Since September 2013, Beijing has undertaken extensive land-reclamation projects — including the building of at least one airstrip — in the Spratly Islands. An estimated $5 trillion in global trade passes through shipping lanes in the South China Sea each year.

The trade routes are the arteries through which the lifeblood of much of the Japanese economy pumps. Tokyo fears the repercussions of what may happen if Beijing comes to dominate them.

According to Zack Cooper, a fellow with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Japan’s concerns are twofold: the threat to regional stability, and the example that assertive actions taken by China there could set.

“Given that U.S. forces and those of regional states have helped to protect international sea lanes . . . to ensure the free flow of energy and other economic trade through these vital routes, any contestation of international waters is a threat not only to the neighboring states, but to all countries with an interest in regional security and prosperity,” Cooper said in an email message.

In addition, Cooper said, “if China is allowed to push around smaller Asian states in the South China Sea, it sets a dangerous precedent for larger states such as Japan, which is facing Chinese claims in the East China Sea.”

While the dispute over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands has long overshadowed the South China Sea issue in Japan, a number of government officials and experts believe the two are inextricably linked.

In 2013, Japan’s defense chief at the time, Itsunori Onodera, highlighted the connection by noting that Tokyo was “very concerned that this kind of situation in the South China Sea could affect the situation in the East China Sea.”

In a 2012 opinion piece written before becoming prime minister, Shinzo Abe was even more direct in linking the two disputes.

“Japan must not yield to the Chinese government’s daily exercises in coercion around the Senkaku Islands. . . . By making these boats’ presence appear ordinary, China seeks to establish its jurisdiction in the waters surrounding the islands as a fait accompli. . . . If Japan were to yield, the South China Sea would become even more fortified,” Abe wrote in a column on the Project Syndicate website.

Some experts have even ventured that the South China Sea issue may be more relevant to Japan than the East China Sea row.

“The SCS issue is much more important for Japan, not only from an economic perspective, but also military/strategic perspective, while the ECS issue is a tactical one and more manageable,” Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow with the Japan Institute of International Affairs who focuses on maritime security, said in an email.

Tokyo is taking a multipronged approach to the South China Sea. It is internationalizing the dispute at multilateral forums, encouraging unity within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, while providing capacity-building support to claimant countries and coordinating its positions with Washington.

Still, the potential for a dramatic policy shift by Tokyo exists, especially if the U.S. does launch a freedom of navigation operation, which will likely make routine patrols by Washington a necessity.

“If and when the U.S. decides to launch FONOPS (freedom of navigation operations) in the Spratlys, it’s unlikely to be a one-off event — in order to reinforce its message that freedom of navigation in the SCS must be respected by China, the U.S. Navy will have to conduct such operations on a regular basis,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow focusing on Asia-Pacific maritime issues at the ISEAS — Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

“This opens the possibility that in the future the United States will invite other countries to participate — Japan and Australia would be obvious candidates,” he said by email.

However, Storey noted, Tokyo accepting any such invitation would represent a significant ratcheting up of Japan’s role in the dispute, and would almost certainly aggravate tensions in Sino-Japanese relations.

Abe has spent considerable political capital over the past several years not to further aggravate the already fraught ties.

Cooper of CSIS also agreed that patrols by Japan were possible, but noted that any decision by Tokyo would have to take into account consultations with the U.S. while also evaluating the risks, benefits and proper timing of such a move.

“Japan certainly has the right to conduct similar operations in international waters, either on its own or in conjunction with the United States,” said Cooper. “It is appropriate that China be given a more prominent say in international affairs, but Beijing will have to respect international rules and norms or it will risk undermining the regional order that enabled China’s rise in the first place.”

But more likely, others say, Tokyo will instead continue its multipronged regional approach to the South China Sea — especially so soon after the Abe government’s grueling battle to pass security laws that allow Japan to conduct combined military operations outside its territorial waters.

“Japan needs to take the lead on the East China Sea and Senkaku issues,” said Corey Wallace, a security policy analyst at the Graduate School of East Asian Studies at Freie Universitat, Berlin. “On the South China Sea, Japan has been careful to not get out ahead of other regional players. So without that regional buy-in the government will be hesitant. I’d say that they will continue to focus on maritime and military-capability building.”

[China’s Activities in the South China Sea: Japanese Ministry of Defense report (PDF)]

  • Liars N. Fools

    Japan should not free ride on American FONOPs in the SCS. More Japanese shipping goes through there than American. Put up, Abe Shinzo.

  • PictureThis

    Glad Japan sailing with the U.S.A. Japan has a Burning Fire within them when fighting ! These guys know how to fight a war and manage it.

  • Sam_boy

    China is a criminal. All they know is steal but not win a war. Japan is a warrior and honorable not like chinese. World need to kick China ass again. China will found itself humiliated again like the history.

  • p j

    Adding a bit of history will definitely help readers to get a clear picture of the South China Sea issue:

    In the 3rd century, the local government of the Jin Dynasties (China) exercised jurisdiction over the South China Sea islands by sending patrolling naval boats to the surrounding sea areas. (Nordquist & Moore 1998, page 155)

    5th–13th centuries: Naval forces of the Song State of the Southern Dynasties (420-479 AD) patrolled the Paracel and Spratly islands.[43] In the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), the islands were placed under the administration and authority of the Qiongzhou Perfecture (now Hainan Province).[43] Chinese administration of the South China Sea continued into the North and South Song dynasties (970-1279).[43]

    1883 – When the Spratlys and Paracels were surveyed by Germany in 1883, China issued protests.[40]

    1887 – The Convention Respecting the Delimitation of the Frontier Between China and Tonkin between France and the Qing Empire set the maritime boundary in the Gulf of Tonkin.[49][50][51] The 1887 Chinese-Vietnamese Boundary convention signed between France and China after the Sino-French War said that China was the owner of the Spratly and Paracel islands.[40][52]

    1898 – The Philippine Islands were ceded by Spain to the United States in the Treaty of Paris following the Spanish–American War. The U.S. reminded the Philippines at its independence (1946) that the Spanish-American treaty of 1898 made it clear that the western limit of the Philippines islands did not include the Spratlys (South China Sea).

    1956 – North Vietnam declares Paracel and Spratly Islands are historically Chinese territory.[63]

    1958 – The People’s Republic of China issued a declaration defining its territorial waters which encompassed the Spratly, Paracel Islands and other islands in the South China Sea. North Vietnam’s prime minister, Pham Van Dong, sent a diplomatic note to Zhou Enlai, stating that “The Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam respects this decision.” The diplomatic note was written on September 14 and was publicized on Nhan Dan newspaper(Vietnam) on September 22, 1958.

  • Ah Ee Tan

    US has been messing problems and chaos in middle east and now shiftes Her dirty hands in SCS…..It seems China peaceful rising is not possible…

  • YONG

    It will be great that Japan participate! China government is naive to show restrain and believe only in peaceful development of the country.
    Looking at my mother decades of tears and pain for the death of her mother, brother and sister! Her father reduced to no more than zombie, losing his wealth and love ones to Japanese invasion!
    The crimes of raping, humiliation, torturing and killing of millions of Chinese during Japanese invasion! Time pay back Japan! I really look forward to Japanese War Ships in South China Sea! Our leaders will have no more excuse! Love to see the whole Japan cover by nuclear explosion mushroom! Time to collect the debt!

  • YONG

    It will be great that Japan participate! China government is naive to show restrain and believe only in peaceful development of the country.
    Looking at my mother decades of tears and pain for the death of her mother, brother and sister! Her father reduced to no more than zombie, losing his wealth and love ones to Japanese invasion!
    The crimes of raping, humiliation, torturing and killing of millions of Chinese during Japanese invasion! Time pay back Japan! I really look forward to Japanese War Ships in South China Sea! Our leaders will have no more excuse! Love to see the whole Japan cover by nuclear explosion mushroom! Time to collect the debt!

  • Ah Ee Tan

    Reporter should add:
    1) WWII had caused an estimated US $ 5 trillion direct loss, and US$10 trillion indirect loss to CHINA national assets. A death toll of 35 million lifes from Japan’atrocity. When JAPAN is going to pay back?

  • ricardo sergio navarro

    Americans or Uncle Sam is a old dog now, damaged many nations with Jewish from redinduansvto Vietnamese and from two Japanese cuties to Middle East. Now real lions are there to counter and old dog is still trying but now is today and yesterday was past.

  • ricardo sergio navarro

    Americans or Uncle Sam is a old dog now, damaged many nations with Jewish from redinduansvto Vietnamese and from two Japanese cuties to Middle East. Now real lions are there to counter and old dog is still trying but now is today and yesterday was past.