National | ANALYSIS

With latest MSDF submarine exercise, Tokyo expertly navigates Beijing's red lines

by Jesse Johnson and Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writers

The revelation this week by Japan that the Marine Self-Defense Force has conducted submarine exercises in the disputed South China Sea is, while striking, unlikely to dampen enthusiasm on either side for improved Sino-Japanese ties, experts say.

The MSDF submarine Kuroshio conducted the drill in the strategic waterway Thursday alongside the helicopter carrier Kaga and two other destroyers, which are on a monthslong dispatch to the Southeast Asian region, the Defense Ministry said Monday.

The anti-submarine warfare exercise was widely seen as part of Tokyo’s push to curb Beijing’s militarization of the area, though Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera denied Tuesday that it had targeted any specific country.

At a news conference, Onodera said the drill had taken place while the vessel was in transit to a port call at Vietnam’s strategic Cam Ranh Bay, which faces the South China Sea. The visit was a first for an MSDF submarine.

But, contrary to earlier media reports, the defense chief also noted that the MSDF had conducted submarine exercises in the area for more than 15 years, echoing remarks by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe late Monday.

Onodera said the government had “adequately publicized” these drills numerous times, but it was unclear when this had occurred.

Although it is true that MSDF submarine deployments to the wider Pacific region aren’t new, this latest visit to Vietnam reflects a broader trend of naval engagements that have in recent years intensified, said Collin Koh, a specialist in regional naval affairs at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Koh characterized last week’s drill as the type of ” ‘visible’ presence that often grabs public attention.”

“Most of the time submarine activities are obscure and secretive, and this means MSDF underwater activities in the region would plausibly be much wider than we see being reported openly,” he said.

According to June Teufel Dreyer, a University of Miami professor and Asia expert, the exercise was “a regular drill to maintain rather than extend the navy’s capabilities.” But, she added, it would also “let the Chinese know that they will encounter resistance” to maritime aggression in the area — not only from Tokyo, but from regional nations, as well.

“The point of the drill … was to conduct FONOPs (freedom of navigation operations) inside the ‘nine-dash line,’ ” Dreyer said, referring to China’s self-declared maritime claim, which covers almost the entire South China Sea — an assertion Beijing clings to despite a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that invalidated it.

Still, she added, the Japanese vessels had apparently “stayed away from areas around China’s fortified islands” — a series of man-made military outposts that Beijing has built up in recent years.

Observers say their development has stoked concern in Tokyo, where the principal security interest in the contested waterway is the safety and openness of vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year.

China maintains the facilities are for defensive purposes, but some experts suggest this is part of a concerted bid to cement de facto control of the South China Sea.

Washington and Tokyo have criticized the island-building, fearing the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway, with the U.S. conducting a number of FONOPs in the area. Last week’s drill came shortly after the passage through the waters by Britain’s HMS Albion, a 22,000 ton amphibious warship, and continued prodding from the U.S. about more countries exercising within the nine-dash line.

Although the drill included a submarine and one of Japan’s massive helicopter carriers — and was, in an unusual move, heavily publicized by the Defense Ministry — Abe sought to play down its importance late Monday, denying that it was directed at China.

“Japan has been performing submarine exercises in the South China Sea since 15 years ago,” Abe said on a TV program. “We did so last year and the year before that. The purpose of the MSDF drills is to improve their skills. It is not intended for specific countries.”

Beijing, which had in the past warned Tokyo against “playing with fire” by sending warships into the waterway, took a noticeably softer stance late Monday, urging nonregional countries to respect the efforts by members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to peacefully resolve the waterway dispute through dialogue, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

“The situation in the South China Sea has been improving,” spokesman Geng Shuang said, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. “China and ASEAN countries are working on promoting a code of conduct in South China Sea consultations, strengthening pragmatic maritime cooperation and resolving disputes properly.”

But despite the Chinese claim that ties are improving, regional nations, such as Vietnam, appear to be hedging their bets.

Alessio Patalano, a lecturer in East Asian warfare and security at King’s College London’s Department of War Studies, said that under Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, MSDF assets and personnel have been engaging counterparts in Vietnam to enhance the bilateral relationship since 2014.

The release of information about the latest exercise and the MSDF’s port call in Vietnam, said Patalano, “suggests a mutual ambition to showcase a positive and substantive trajectory.”

“This is not about a submarine deployment; it is about Japan’s contribution to enhance operational capacity with a Southeast Asian partner,” he added.

The muted Chinese response also came ahead of a planned visit to China by Abe in October, and as U.S. President Donald Trump ratchets up a trade war with the Asian giant — an approach that has pushed Beijing and Tokyo closer.

Abe himself pointed out in his TV appearance that Sino-Japanese relations were steadily “entering a new stage,” and said Beijing was almost certainly aware of the exercise.

According to Bonnie Glaser, who heads the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, the security situation in the South China Sea remains a high priority for Tokyo, as “it is inextricably linked to the maritime spaces in the East China Sea” where the two are embroiled in a dispute over the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu in China.

But Glaser believes it is unlikely Japanese naval operations in the South China Sea will undermine improving ties. Tokyo, she said, knows where the boundaries are that would prompt a strong reaction from Beijing.

“There are red lines Japan will not cross, for example going inside 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) of Chinese-occupied features,” she said.

The University of Miami’s Dreyer, who served as a commissioner on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, agreed. Beyond security issues, she noted, Beijing is gambling that it can convince Tokyo to cooperate on its “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) cross-border infrastructure initiative after Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed the issue as well as the importance of free trade this month amid Trump’s push for what he calls freer, fairer trade.

The U.S. president escalated his trade war with China on Monday, imposing 10 percent tariffs on about $200 billion worth of Chinese imports. He has reportedly said he will take his trade fight to Japan next.

“Getting Japanese participation in OBOR would be a big coup for China, especially because of both Chinese and Japanese tensions with Trump over trade,” Dreyer said.