Recently, the disputed South China Sea has seen an escalation among the varied parties who lay claim to it. The Japanese who are not a claimant nation though have most recently entered the fray in a position against China. For China, the presence of Japan in a dispute which they lay no claim to is a serious problem. China does not want Japan interfering in a dispute where the parties are increasingly opposing China and where other outsider countries are now involving themselves. Forces from the Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF) it is argued should not be in the region engaged in activities that are directed at the disputed islands. Japan though is standing its ground in that it has the legal right to operate in what it considers international waters.
Chinese Major General Zhu Chenghu, said “…the Japanese military presence [in the South China Sea], it is very difficult for the Chinese people and the Chinese government to accept it.” Zhu is a professor of strategic studies at China’s National Defense University and has in the past made incendiary comments such as when he threatened a nuclear strike on the U.S. back in 2013. Meanwhile one of the top Communist Party members in China, Yu Zhengsheng, told a group of visiting Japanese Diet members in Beijing that the South China Sea issues have “nothing to do with Japan.” Oddly enough, in his meeting with Japanese lawmakers, Yu noted that Beijing-Tokyo relations had improved over where they were a year ago.
The Chinese are unhappy with the actions of the government in the Philippines as well who they believe are complicating the dispute. While the Philippines have been taking part in certain actions that can be seen as provocative, one must remember that it is China who is building up islands in disputed areas for military purposes. U.S. involvement in the region though looked upon cautiously by China is seen as preferable over Japanese involvement according to Zhu. The reason for that is due to the long history that the U.S. has been militarily involved in South East Asia.
Just a few days ago, Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of the Joint Staff of the JSDF stated “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.” This is an impressive comment especially coming from the top uniformed officer in the JSDF; such a bold statement is the product of new Japanese foreign and security policy objectives and would be unheard of even a decade ago. Already, last week during joint Japanese-Philippines military exercises, Japanese P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft carried out two patrols near a disputed area of the South China Sea. These military exercises with the Philippines are only the second to ever be held and will most certainly not be the last.
In the past few months, the Japanese have signed an agreement to sell to the Philippines ten patrol boats and there is serious talk about a possible future Philippine purchase of P-3C Orion’s from Japan. Both countries have also discussed the creation of a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that would allow JSDF forces to use Philippine bases. Talks on the VFA will be held soon and have received the full support of Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin. Gazmin though has said the VFA with Japan is not meant as a direct move against China, rather the establishment of a new military partnership.
Japan’s Interests in the South China Sea
Japan has several interests in the South China Sea. Being an island nation it is highly reliant on sea-borne trade and one of the primary trade routes is through the South China Sea. If a conflict or other disruption occurs there, a significant problem would be brought upon the Japanese economy. Additionally though not officially stated, Japan is interested in complicating the interests of China in this dispute. Both countries are currently embroiled in a dispute over the Japanese controlled Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands which have led to a high degree of friction over the past few years with the creation of the Chinese ADIZ and Chinese warships placing missile locks on Japanese ships. With regional sentiment running against China right now, Japan sees an opportunity to enhance relations with other countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam by actively supporting them in the South China Sea dispute.
Out of the disputing nations in the South China Sea, the countries that have been most at loggerheads are China, the Philippines, and Vietnam. It is understandable though that China would rather not see third parties enter into the fray. India already has due to economic interests with Vietnam while the U.S. is keenly interested in ensuring that Philippine claims are respected; and also to limit China’s activities.
The entry of Japan into the fray signals several things. For starters, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has been exercising a more assertive foreign and security policy. While Japan has no claim to the South China Sea, peace there is of great importance to Japan. Furthermore Japan is seeking to expand its friendships with other powers in Asia. For too long Japan has held back but no longer, especially when the conditions are viewed as favorable towards greater Japanese engagement and this brings us to another point. With many East Asia countries having increasingly negative dealings with China, an opportunity for Japan to gain points has been made and this is being played out not only with the Philippines.
There can be no argument that the level of Japan’s involvement in the region in the coming months will be looked upon with great attention by China. Both sides should be cautious not to push each other too far.