As tension mounts in the South China Sea over the U.S. military’s recent patrol challenging China’s territorial claims there, speculation has centered on what action Japan may take in the region.
On Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe struck a robust posture, saying in his speech at a Tokyo hotel he plans to rally international cooperation on upholding maritime rule of law during the Group of 20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meeting in Manila this month.
Some senior U.S. military and diplomatic officials have pressed Abe to dispatch the Self-Defense Forces on joint patrols with the United States in the South China Sea.
Abe may well calculate that it is in Japan’s interests to do so, given its strategic investments in the region, as vast amounts of cargo is shipped to and from the country through the area every day. It is also inarguably important to maintain the military alliance with the United States.
But senior government officials The Japan Times has spoken to say nothing like that is on the cards.
The three individuals, who are familiar with Japan’s decision-making processes on security policies, say the nation is not entertaining sending a Self-Defense Force unit to join patrols being carried out by the U.S. military.
One of the three, who is a senior Defense Ministry official, said the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) does not have a large enough capacity to deploy patrol airplanes and destroyers in both the South and East China seas at the same time.
“Nobody at the Defense Ministry is now thinking of sending the SDF to the South China Sea,” the ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Now, our priority is on the East China Sea. We need to concentrate on it first,” the official said.
Another of the three, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, argued Japan should not join the so-called freedom of navigation operation by the U.S. Navy, which last week sent the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen through what China is claiming as its territorial waters within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of man-made islands in the South China Sea.
Japanese participation in such a risky navigation would be too provocative to Beijing and could “backfire,” the officials warned.
Since 2012, Beijing has regularly sent government ships to the East China Sea to strengthen its territorial claim over the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are considered the flash point of any possible China-Japan military clash.
The MSDF has regularly deployed P-3C patrol planes and destroyers in the sea around the Senkakus, known as the Diaoyus in Chinese, to monitor and keep in check Chinese ships.
If Japan starts patrol operations in the South China Sea, Tokyo will need to considerably scale down its fleet and airplane units now being mobilized to defend the Senkakus, an option which defense officials say is not impossible but “would pose a very tough decision” for Tokyo.
In June, the head of the United States Pacific Command, Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., reportedly told Japanese media in Tokyo that the U.S. would welcome Japanese participation during patrol operations in the South China Sea.
Officially, in public, all of Japan’s top leaders, including Defense Minister Gen Nakatani and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, have repeated an almost identical comment when asked by reporters: Japan “currently has no such plan” to send the SDF to the South China Sea but “may consider doing so” depending on how the situation develops.
The apparent ambiguity has raised speculation over Japan’s intention.
Despite Harris’ remark, Japanese government sources have suggested neither U.S. diplomatic nor defense authorities have officially asked Japan to send an MSDF unit to the South China Sea.
“For now we won’t send the SDF to the South China Sea,” said a high-ranking government official Thursday. “(But) we don’t need to deny all (options) right now,” the official added.
The ministry official also said that having the MSDF fleet sail through the South China Sea, for example, on the way home from an overseas exercise was a possible future option.
But nothing has been decided and whether Japan will conduct such an operation at all will depend on developments in the South China Sea, the official added.
Meanwhile, an unnamed U.S. defense official was quoted by Reuters as saying that the U.S. Navy plans to conduct patrols within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands in the South China Sea about twice a quarter.
Bonji Ohara, a research fellow at the Tokyo Foundation and former chief of the intelligence section at the MSDF Maritime Staff Office, said he believed Japan should engage in regular patrol operations over the South China Sea to maintain freedom of navigation and reject China’s territorial claims in the region.
But Ohara also argued Japan should not sail its destroyers within the 12-nautical-mile limit of the man-made islands, as the U.S. did last week with the Lassen.
Ohara pointed out that under the strict legal restrictions of Japan’s pacifist Constitution, an MSDF ship would only be allowed to attack in self-defense if a military clash with China was to ever break out.
Japan should not engage in such risky navigation because Japan, unlike the U.S. military, did not have a “next option” to deal with a possible military clash with China, Ohara said.
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