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Be Wary of Japan’s Moves in the South China Sea

Apr 10 , 2017
  • Chen Xiangmiao

    Assistant Research Fellow, China National Institute for South China Sea Studies

After five years of continuous confrontation between China and some neighboring countries such as the Philippines, tensions in the South China Sea began to ease in the second half of last year. The disputing parties resumed dialogue for conciliation and cooperation. However, they should be wary of interference from outsiders. For instance, the United States and Japan are trying to stop the situation from improving. Japan is becoming the biggest troublemaker in the region.
Though totally extraneous in the South China Sea disputes, Japan has vital concerns in the region.

Concern No. 1: The sea is an important piece in Japan’s strategic game to contain China. Tokyo wants to check China’s ever-growing influence and its command of air and sea in the region. It also hopes to muster domestic support for its efforts to enhance its regional influence and strengthen its military presence in surrounding waters by exaggerating the so-called “Chinese marine expansion.”

Concern No. 2:The sea is Japan’s “maritime lifeline” for resources and energy security. Significantly dependent on Middle East petroleum, Japan’s imports from that region accounts for 70 percent of its total oil imports annually. The South China Sea is crucial for that transportation.

Concern No. 3: The sea is a vital geopolitical arena for Japan in its pursuit of strategic expansion. Encouraged by the growth of its economic strength, Japan dreams of resuming its wartime marine supremacy in Asia by gaining air and sea domination. This is part of its effort to extend influence on regional affairs and meet its needs to “normalize the state,” “normalize the military” and become a “political power.” The South China Sea is a crucial link in Japan’s marine strategy, second only to the East China Sea and its own peripheral waters in strategic importance.

In December 2013, the Japanese government announced the National Security Strategy, National Defense Program Guidelines and Medium Term Defense Program, which reviewed Japan’s marine security problems and its ability to address these concerns, and arranged corresponding measures. At present, Japan has everything ready for all-round interference in the South China Sea in terms of its strategic will and capability, and the situation there seems to be favorable.

First, starting from 2012, Japan has been providing arms and military aid to the Philippines, Vietnam and other territory-claiming countries in the South China Sea disputes, as well as taking part in joint military drills and navy exchanges in the region. These moves unmistakably testified to Tokyo’s intention to gain more diplomatic and military leverage in Southeast Asia.

Second, Japan’s air and marine forces and defense industry now rank at the top in Asia thanks to its strong economic power and technological innovation ability, though its pacifist Constitution forbids it to possess a “conventional military force.” The country has developed an ability to sell arms to Southeast Asian nations and directly intervene in the South China Sea problems with its military capacity.

Third, the Japanese parliament passed a series of bills to revise its security laws, such as the Self-Defense Force Law and the Law for Ensuring Safety in Major Events Affecting (Japan’s security), removing a domestic hindrance to Tokyo’s attempt to butt in on the sea issue. Meanwhile, the United States has begun to relax control of Japan’s military growth by encouraging Japan to play a greater role in regional security affairs. Some ASEAN countries also began to woo Tokyo because of their suspicions about China’s strategic goals, thus creating an opportunity for Japan to enhance its presence in the region.

Japan’s interference in the South China Sea is likely to heat up in the foreseeable future.

The first sure move will be to enhance cooperation with countries on the sea rim in military drills and reconnaissance against China and help them with military training and aid. The second move will be boosting arms exports to these countries, especially Vietnam and the Philippines. The third move is to lobby India and Australia to establish a quasi-alliance against China on the pretext of continuing dialogue and cooperation on maritime security, which was initiated in 2012 under the auspices of Washington.

Given these predictable developments, China and ASEAN countries should watch out for Tokyo’s actions in the South China Sea and take anticipatory measures to protect the hard-earned détente in the region.

On one hand, China and ASEAN should continue the “10-plus-1” dialogue on defense and diplomacy and study the possibility of – and finally establish – a jointly administered security preservation mechanism in the sea to control any unpredictability. All should then refrain from approaching outsiders like the US and Japan for so-called “balance,” which may undermine the cooperative and security framework established by China and ASEAN.

On the other hand, all parties in the South China Sea disputes, including China, the Philippines and Vietnam, should stick to the common understanding stated in the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, continue bilateral negotiations for settlement of disputes and strive for provisional cooperative arrangements before the final solution of any problem. By doing so, they can ensure that the situation will become stable and controllable.

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