Japan Weighs Course of Action in South China Sea

Japan Weighs Course of Action in South China SeaJapan Weighs Course of Action in South China Sea

As tension mounts in the South China Sea over the US military’s recent patrol challenging China’s territorial claims there, speculation has centered on what action Japan may take in the region.

On Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe struck a robust posture, telling a symposium in Tokyo he plans to rally international cooperation on upholding maritime rule of law during the Group of 20 Summit in Ankara and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meeting in Manila this month, Japan Times reported.

Some senior US military and diplomatic officials have pressed Abe to dispatch the Self-Defense Forces on joint patrols with the United States in the South China Sea.

  East China First

Abe may well calculate that it is in Japan’s interests to do so, given its strategic investments in the region, as vast amounts of cargo are shipped to and from the country through the area every day. It is also inarguably important to maintain the military alliance with the United States.

But senior government officials say nothing like that is on the cards.

The three individuals, who are familiar with Japan’s decision-making processes on security policies, say the nation is not entertaining sending a Self-Defense Force unit to join patrols being carried out by the US military.

One of the three, who is a senior Defense Ministry official, said the Maritime Self-Defense Force does not have a large enough capacity to deploy patrol airplanes and destroyers in both the South and East China seas at the same time.

“Nobody at the Defense Ministry is now thinking of sending the SDF to the South China Sea,” the ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Now, our priority is on the East China Sea. We need to concentrate on it first,” the official said.

Another of the three, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, argued Japan should not join the so-called freedom of navigation operation by the US Navy, which last week sent the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen through what China is claiming as its territorial waters within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of manmade islands in the South China Sea.

Japanese participation in such a risky navigation would be too provocative to Beijing and could “backfire”, the officials warned.

Since 2012, Beijing has regularly sent government ships to the East China Sea to strengthen its territorial claim over the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are considered the flashpoint of any possible China-Japan military clash.

The MSDF has regularly deployed P-3C patrol planes and destroyers in the sea around the Senkakus, known as the Diaoyus in Chinese, to monitor and keep in check Chinese ships.

  A Very Tough Decision

If Japan starts patrol operations in the South China Sea, Tokyo will need to considerably scale down its fleet and airplane units now being mobilized to defend the Senkakus, an option which defense officials say is not impossible but “would pose a very tough decision” for Tokyo.

In June, the head of the United States Pacific Command, Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., reportedly told Japanese media in Tokyo that the US would welcome Japanese participation during patrol operations in the South China Sea.

Officially, in public, all of Japan’s top leaders, including Defense Minister Gen Nakatani and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, have repeated an almost identical comment when asked by reporters: Japan “currently has no such plan” to send the SDF to the South China Sea but “may consider doing so” depending on how the situation develops.

The apparent ambiguity has raised speculation over Japan’s intention.

Despite Harris’ remark, Japanese government sources have suggested neither US diplomatic nor defense authorities have officially asked Japan to send an MSDF unit to the South China Sea.

“For now, we won’t send the SDF to the South China Sea,” said a high-ranking government official Thursday. “[But] we don’t need to deny all [options] right now,” the official added.

The ministry official also said that having the MSDF fleet sail through the South China Sea, for example, on the way home from an overseas exercise was a possible future option.

But nothing has been decided and whether Japan will conduct such an operation at all will depend on developments in the South China Sea, the official added.

  Europe Warns

The European Union made its strongest call yet for China and other Asian nations to resolve their dispute over the South China Sea, a position Brussels insists is neutral but that the United States is likely to welcome after pressing the bloc to speak up.

At a summit of EU and Asian foreign ministers in Luxembourg, Beijing escaped any public admonishment over its construction and militarization of islands in the South China Sea but the EU’s foreign policy chief took a firm line in the bloc’s first public comments since Washington patrolled the area this month.

“We are committed to a maritime order based on the principles of international law,” Federica Mogherini told a news conference when asked about the dispute. “We oppose any attempt to assert territorial or maritime claims through the use of intimidation, coercion, force or any unilateral actions which would cause further friction,” she said.