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On South China Sea, Japan should not play a disruptive role

2022-04-18 11:44:12       source:South China Morning Post

April 18, 2022

On April 9, Japan and the Philippines held their first “2+2” meeting of foreign and defence ministers in Tokyo. In a joint statement issued after the meeting, Japan and the Philippines expressed serious concerns over the situation in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, while stressing the importance of peace and stability in the region and its maritime security. The statement said the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) is a vital element for regional peace and prosperity.

Japan concurred with the Philippines’ long-standing objections to illegal maritime claims, militarisation, coercive activities, and the threat or use of force in the South China Sea and supports the 2016 South China Sea arbitration award. The Philippines stressed that the South China Sea arbitration award is “final” and legally binding”.

Over the past five years, the Philippines has repeatedly stressed the validity and binding effect of the ruling. In Beijing's view, the reason why China-Philippines relations have turned around and some progress in functional cooperation in the South China Sea has been achieved is by no means the validity and binding effect of the ruling. It is because the Duterte government pursues a rational and pragmatic South China Sea policy, and the two sides have reached a consensus on shelving the ruling and not dealing with the South China Sea issue on the premise.

During the meeting of the Japanese and Philippine defence ministers, the two sides agreed to further boost security cooperation by conducting joint exercises. After the meeting, Japan’s Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters, “The Philippines is an island nation like Japan, a littoral state in the South China Sea, and an ally of the United States like Japan. We consider it a very important country”.

This again confirms that Japan regards the Philippines as its strategic security point in the Western Pacific region and the focus of its involvement in the South China Sea issue.

As an important ally of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan continued to make attempts to exert influence on the South China Sea issue. Shunji Yanai, the then president of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea who appointed three judges to the South China Sea arbitration tribunal, had as early as 2013 served in Japan as chairman of the Advisory Panel for the Prime Minister on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security. The panel’s main function is to seek legal basis and provide theoretical support for the Japanese government to amend the constitution, lift the ban on the right of collective self-defence, and strengthen the Japan-US alliance.

In recent years, Japan has been criticising China on the South China Sea issue from various perspectives such as diplomacy, public opinion, international law and military affairs. The most obvious approach is critiquing China for its South China Sea policies and activities at international conferences and at bilateral or multilateral meetings.

Japan has territorial and maritime delimitation disputes with China in the East China Sea and thus has a strong motivation and willingness to intervene in South China Sea affairs. Under US President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy, Japan’s role in the US-led regional “small multilateral” security mechanism will become more prominent, and its coordination with other US allies will also increase accordingly. In other words, Japan may be more aggressive and exercised over the East China Sea and South China Sea issues in the next few years.

But its position smacks of double standards. While Japan has questionedthe legal nature of islands and reefs in the South China Sea in several official documents, Japan has always insisted that its “Okinotorishima”, which is only two beds in size, has an exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. While Japan emphasises “freedom of navigation” in international waters, it makes irresponsible remarks about vessels of other countries passing through the Tokara Strait.

Japan accuses China of damaging the marine environment with its construction of islands and reefs, but it insists on discharging treated nuclear waste water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean despite the objections of many countries.

Thus, the international community has reason to question, when Japan interprets and applies the rules of the law of the sea, if it is out of true respect for the values of international law or out of practical consideration of its own political interests.

Japan is not a party to the South China Sea dispute and has a disgraceful history in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia in the first half of the 20th century. On the South China Sea issue, Japan should be more cautious in its words and deeds and play a constructive role, instead of promoting group confrontation and disrupting the regional situation by cooperating with Washington in putting together closed and exclusive small circles increasing fragmentation and bloc-based division.

Over the past five years, China has always insisted on resolving disputes through negotiation on the South China Sea issue, mitigating disputes through development and cooperation, and managing crises through rule-building. This approach has not changed even in the face of the ups and downs of the regional situation and the involvement of countries outside the South China Sea.

A proper solution to the South China Sea issue will take a long time, but in the process of discussing a solution, all countries concerned should show restraint and patience, and jointly safeguard the hard-won peace and stability in the South China Sea.

Ding Duo is deputy director and associate research fellow at the Research Center for Ocean Law and Policy at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies