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Japan should beware of the deep US-China undercurrents in the South China Sea

2020-01-02 17:45:38       source:NISCSS

December 19, 2019

Some commentators have recently extolled the virtues of Japan’s increased military presence in the South China Sea. But this is a bad idea for Japan and the region because it will draw it closer to conflict with China.


Under pressure from the United States to aid China containment, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has stretched the envelope of its pacifist constitution, reinterpreting it to allow the use of force to defend itself and its closest ally and security guarantor, the US. Back in 2017, Takayuki Kobayashi, then defence vice-minister, said: “China is attempting to make changes in the South China Sea with bases and through acts that exert pressure is altering the status quo.”


In recent years, Japan has engaged in naval exercises with the US, Canada, France, India and several Southeast Asian states with South China Sea claims that rival China’s. Earlier this year, Japan sent its helicopter carrier Izumo on a tour of the South China Sea, calling at Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka before joining a naval exercise in the Indian Ocean with India and the US. It was Japan’s largest show of force in the region since WWII.


Next year, Japan plans to upgrade the Izumo to accommodate newly bought US stealth fighters and to be able to conduct amphibious operations. More recently, Defence Minister Taro Kono, in a clear reference to China and the South China Sea, declaredthat “China is engaging in unilateral and coercive attempts to alter the status quo based on its own assertions that are incompatible with the existing international order” and that such “aggressors must be forced to pay the cost”.


For several years, the US has encouraged greater Japanese military presence in the region, particularly in air patrols.If implemented, such patrols are likely to involve Japanese P-3C Orions’ surveillance of Chinese vessels and possibly nuclear submarines.


The US pushed Japan’s security red button by convincing it that China threatens its oil artery in the South China Sea. As early as 2015, Japan was talking about deepening US cooperation amid the national security impact of the South China Sea situation.


The US has also urged its allies, including Japan, to join its military exercises in the region, in particular its freedom of navigation operations, which challenge China’s territorial and jurisdictional claims with warships and warplanes. Seen variously as gunboat diplomacy or plain bullying, freedom of navigation operations are, as a senior US naval officer put it, “an in-your-face, rub-your-nose-in-it operation that lets people know who is the boss”.


In fact, such US operations challenge the claims of almost all South China Sea coastal countries, and no US ally or friend has joined such operations for reasons that include caution and disagreement with the US interpretation of navigational freedom.


Under the United Nations charter, all states have a legal duty to avoid “military, political, economic or any other form of coercion aimed against the political independence or territorial integrity of any state”. “Might makes right” tactics are not a good example for Japan to follow.


Japan must not sip from the legal and political Kool-Aid the US is dishing out. The US is primarily concerned with the navigational freedom of its warships and planes engaged in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance off China’s coast. It is conflating this concern with purported threats to commercial navigation to garner support against China’s attempts to constrain US probes. China has never threatened commercial freedom of navigation and is unlikely to, in peacetime.


Japan has tried to make its naval presence welcome in the region. Throughout the 1990s, Japan sought to organise regional initiatives to combat piracy in Southeast Asia. One proposal was for Ocean Peace Keeping, which envisioned a standing maritime force of naval contingents from regional states. In 1999 at the Asean+3 summit, Japan proposed a regional coastguard. But faced with China’s opposition and a non-committal reception from Southeast Asia, the proposals withered on the vine.


The reasons for this opposition persist today. The psychological wounds of WWII have not fully faded away. They lurk just below the surface, ready to erupt in anti-Japanese nationalism at the slightest provocation. Such raw nationalism has reared its ugly head in both China and Japan before, and could easily do so again, pushing their leadership to take ever more strident positions.


In 2012, at the height of the dispute over the Diaoyu/ Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, China’s foreign ministry lambasted Japan’s claim as “an outright denial of the outcomes of the victory of the World Anti-Fascist War and constitutes a grave challenge to the post-war international order”. China sees Japan as continuing its history of arrogance and aggression by being part of a US-led “China containment” strategy.


A military role in the region for the former brutal and – for many – insufficiently repentant conqueror of China and Southeast Asia could strengthen the hand of militarists in China and undercut those who favour a softer approach.


Although it has no claim in the area, Japan is whistling by the graveyard and taking a more assertive military role. Unsurprisingly, China has repeatedly warned Japan off.


Many analysts warn of a tipping point in US-China relations beyond which the two conclude that conflict is unavoidable and begin preparing for it in earnest while hiding their true intentions. Beyond that tipping point, national mindsets and policy decisions inexorably tilt and then flow towards conflict.


Japan could well get swept up in this flood. It needs to weigh carefully the consequences of helping to upset the geopolitical apple cart in the South China Sea. 

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China


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