Chinese state media outlets have responded to news of potential joint U.S.-Japan operations in the disputed South China Sea with a spate of fiery editorials, but experts say Japan’s announcement of increased engagement in the waters breaks little new ground.
State media outlets said Saturday that any joint U.S.-Japan patrols in the South China Sea could prompt Beijing to beef up its military deployments in the hotly contested Spratly Islands — and ultimately set the stage for an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) declaration.
The reaction comes after a speech Thursday by Defense Minister Tomomi Inada to a Washington think tank in which she said Japan would “increase its engagement in the South China Sea through … Maritime Self-Defense Force joint training cruises with the U.S. Navy.”
The state-run Global Times, known for its strident nationalist stance, blasted the speech in an editorial Saturday, calling any joint patrols of the contested waters the “gunboat diplomacy of the 21st century.”
“The joint patrol, once it begins, is the ‘gunboat policy’ of the 21st century against China,” the editorial said. “China should resolutely begin military deployment on its expanded Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands) to balance the situation, and should notify ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries beforehand to allow the international society to know the cause of the increased tension.”
The commentary added that if the joint operations intensify or involve other countries, China could then declare a South China Sea ADIZ.
In such a scenario, it added, “Japanese naval ships should be the major target of China. Chinese warplanes may take sophisticated actions like low-altitude flyby against the ships to pressure Japan.”
In her speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, Inada said Japan would also continue its program of helping coastal nations bolster their maritime capabilities while conducting bilateral and multilateral exercises with regional navies.
Inada visited Washington last week for her first meeting with U.S. defense chief Ash Carter, where they discussed issues including North Korea and the South and East China seas.
Japan and the U.S. have emphasized the rule of law in settling international disputes, giving heavy backing to a July ruling by an international tribunal on the South China Sea that denied China’s sweeping claims in the strategic waterway.
Experts played down the reaction in Chinese state media, saying that Inada’s comments did not break new ground in Japan’s approach to the South China Sea.
“She talked about cruises, which means Japan will have some presence in the South China Sea when traveling back and forth from the Gulf of Aden and for port visits or exercises with regional partners, which is the same as before,” said James Schoff, a former senior adviser for East Asia policy at the U.S. Defense Department.
“So her speech is either being misrepresented or misunderstood. It doesn’t represent a policy change and seems only to be something that a few in China want to try to use to further escalate the situation,” Schoff added.
Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, said that Japan’s presence in the South China Sea will not by itself become a significant driver of China’s militarization of the newly expanded islands there.
“However, Japan’s naval operations may generate far more dangerous scenarios like direct conflicts between the two navies,” Zhang said. “We cannot rule out scenarios of Chinese ships ramming Japanese ones or Chinese ships blocking their passage.
“China has done nothing directly against U.S. operations but Japan is a different story,” he added.
Additional commentaries were also published by the official Xinhua News Agency and the state-run China Daily on Saturday following Inada’s speech.
Xinhua said the true reason behind Tokyo’s apparent ramped-up interest in the South China Sea is not in those waters, but rather in the East China Sea.
Beijing is involved in a territorial dispute with Tokyo over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are known as the Diaoyu Islands in China.
“That is where its true and major purpose lies, as revealed in the very same speech Inada made,” Xinhua said.
This echoed the Global Times commentary, which urged China to increase the frequency of coast guard patrols near the Senkakus since Japan is likely using the South China Sea dispute “to create space for itself in the East China Sea.”
Inada slammed Beijing’s moves near the Senkakus in her speech, saying Chinese maritime law enforcement vessels have maintained a sustained presence in the waters surrounding the islets, which she called an inherent part of Japanese territory.
“Their incursions into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus have become ‘routinized’ in recent years,” Inada said, according to a transcript of the speech.
“These moves clearly represent China’s unprovoked escalation in the waters surrounding Japan and its attempt to change the status quo,” she said, adding that Tokyo will “keep the door open” for “candid discussions” with China.
Lingnan University’s Zhang cast doubt on Beijing’s claims that the disputes are linked, saying that Tokyo is mainly worried the strategic waters — home to key shipping lanes through which more than $5 trillion in global trade passes each year — could be dominated by China.
“I think Japan’s concerns for the South China Sea are long-standing and are driven by true strategic considerations,” Zhang said. “Japan has a profound fear that China may one day establish de facto control over the South China Sea and that will drastically affect Japan’s national security. So its announced intention of sending its navy to the South China Sea has its own strategic logic that is not related to China’s activities in the East China Sea.”