Japan’s most senior uniformed officer has stated that the country may be willing to join U.S. patrols of the South China Sea.
Ongoing territorial disputes in the area and a huge land reclamation program undertaken by China have encouraged Japan to step up and become more involved in regional security, writes Yuka Hayashi for The Wall Street Journal.
Strategic shipping route of paramount importance to Japan
Adm. Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of the Joint Staff of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, used an interview to state that China’s artificial islands pose “very serious potential concerns” for Japan. Many Japanese exports are shipped through the sea lanes of the South China Sea, which could be threatened by Chinese actions.
“Of course, the area is of the utmost importance for Japanese security,” Adm. Kawano said. “We don’t have any plans to conduct surveillance in the South China Sea currently but depending on the situation, I think there is a chance we could consider doing so.”
No specific details were given as to what might provoke Japan into carrying out patrols, and such an action would most likely provoke opposition from within the country. Japan currently has a pacifist constitution implemented after World War II, which severely restricts military activities.
The United States would certainly be glad of the support of a regional ally as it struggles to contain the growing Chinese presence in the region. “I view the South China Sea as international water, not territorial water of any country, and so Japan is welcome to conduct operations on the high seas as Japan sees fit,” said Adm. Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command.
Security situation could see end of pacifist constitution
Japanese sailors have been taking part in joint military exercises with their counterparts from the Philippines near Palawan island this week, located just a few hundred kilometers from the disputed Spratly chain. Among the hardware included in the drill are Japan’s P-3C surveillance aircraft, which has “a superb ability for detecting submarines and other objects in the water,” according to Adm. Kawano.
The role of the military in Japan is being questioned by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wants to relax the terms of the constitution. Self-imposed restrictions severely limit the activities of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, but Mr. Abe claims that China’s military expansion and North Korea’s nuclear program provide ample justification for changes to the policy.
“In the case of China, as we can see with the South China Sea problem, they are rapidly expanding their naval presence and their defense spending is still growing,” Adm. Kawano said. “Also because there is a lack of transparency, we are very concerned about China’s actions.”
Journalists asked a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman about Adm. Kawano’s comments, and were told that the construction projects “are entirely a matter within out sovereignty, which is beyond reproach.” The spokesman later warned countries from outside the region not to engage in military activity in the South China Sea, as it “will only cause an adverse impact.”
Political will currently lacking
Revisions to the defense cooperation agreements between Japan and the U.S. were made for the first time in 18 years this April, and Japan can now take more of an active role in regional security. However military action outside Japan’s borders relies on the passing of a set of new bills to update national laws which govern the military.
So far even members of Abe’s ruling coalition expressed serious reservations about making significant changes to the laws. Despite potential problems on the domestic front, encouraging signs of a thaw in Japan’s relationship with South Korea were seen this week.
Military cooperation has been held back by ongoing disputes over wartime history, but progress may be made after leaders from both nations were seen at events to commemorate 50 years of normalized diplomatic relations.
Would involving allies help to resolve issues in the South China Sea?
Adm. Kawano also underlined Japan’s willingness to participate in further joint exercises with Australia and India, and praised the close relationship with the United States. “The alliance with the U.S. is our foundation. That’s how we build deterrence,” he said.
Many Japanese lawmakers are understandably wary about making such significant changes to the pacifist constitution, but Prime Minister Abe appears to believe that the rapidly evolving security situation in Asia merits higher levels of Japanese involvement.
It must be said that the United States would welcome the assistance of the world’s third-largest economy in neutralizing growing tensions in the South China Sea, but at the same time it may be an issue which can be resolved between Washington and Beijing.
There is a risk that bringing other countries into the delicate ecosystem could serve to further inflame tensions in an area which Beijing appears to have made a priority.