Tokyo Dips Toe in Dangerous Waters

In late March, Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo, paid a state visit to Japan, his first journey outside of Asean, since taking office the previous October. Only a few years ago, such a trip would have been dominated by trade, trade, trade.

Those elements were present in Widodo’s trip to be sure, but the biggest issue on the agenda between the two countries was an issue not usually discussed in such forums – security. Japan used to be aloof from the-three dimensional chess game of conflicting territorial claims going on in the South China Sea. Tokyo is preoccupied over its own territorial dispute with China over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Quietly encouraged by its ally the United States, however, Japan is moving not so stealthily into a new arena of potential conflict.

Beijing claims all the reefs and atolls in the region known as the Spratlys and has been increasingly aggressive in asserting control, not just with rhetoric but with sand and concrete. It is busy turning half a dozen reefs and atolls that are barely above water at low tide into artificial islands complete with docking facilities, gun emplacements and airstrips.

Japan has no territorial claims in the South China Sea, even though several islands were garrisoned by the Imperial Navy during World War II. Additionally, a strict reading of its pacifistic constitution limits Japan’s military strictly to defense of the home islands. On the surface it would seem that Tokyo has no direct interest in the increasingly volatile region.

Yet that hasn’t prevented Japan from forging security partnerships with the front-line Southeast Asian nations and in some instances providing hardware and training. Both Vietnam and the Philippines have weak navies, but are acquiring more warships and patrol vessels, some of them from Japan. The first of 10 coast guard vessels that Japan is building for the Philippines should be delivered by the end of 2015.

Some Japanese trainers have been sent to Vietnam to help them learn to operate their new submarines. Many countries around the South China Sea littoral are becoming increasingly anxious about China’s intentions and are looking to improve security ties with other nations around the sea. Defense ministers from Malaysia and the Philippines met in Manila in early 2015 and agreed that their deputy defense ministers will consult with each other on a regular basis. The meeting was noteworthy as Malaysia, which claims several islands in the south Spratlys, usually prefers a softer approach and demonstrated it earlier this month by barring two Hong Kong dissidents from visiting a conference in Kuala Lumpur so as to not incur Beijing’s disapproval.

The Philippines has also taken the step of filing a complaint against China with the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, pointing specifically to the “Nine-dash Line” on official Chinese maps that seem to suggest that Beijing claims the entire South China Sea as its sovereign territory. Beijing has not replied.

Vice Adm. Robert Thomas, commander of the US 7th Fleet in the Western Pacific, raised eyebrows all over Asia in early 2015 when he said that he favored regular naval and air patrols by the Japanese air force and navy over the South China Sea. “Such an operation in the South China Sea makes sense in the future,” said the admiral.

He later went on to say he supported an “emerging plan” to create multi-national patrols in the South China Sea. He did not say so, but he was almost certainly thinking of Japanese ships taking part. So what to make of the admiral’s comments? They seem to be extremely wide-sweeping from a vice admiral. Is he taking a flier?

Japan’s defense minister, Gen (a name not a rank) Nakatani, said there were no plans for Japanese forces to intrude on the waters in such an open way, although he went on to say that “the situation in the South China Sea is having a [direct] impact on Japan’s national security.”

Earlier this month President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines visited Tokyo, where he announced that Manila would be happy to sign a “Visiting Forces Agreement” with Japan which would permit Japanese patrol planes or warships to use Philippine bases for refueling supporting flights into the South China Sea, something that takes the growing Japan-Philippines alliance to a whole new level.

In March several US senators took note that China’s island-building projects in the South China Sea are moving faster than anyone had anticipated. “It is our understanding that a majority of this work has been completed in the last 12 months alone, and if current building rates proceed, China could complete the extent of its planned reclamation in the coming year,” according to the letter, signed by Sens. John McCain, Jack Reed, Bob Corker and Bob Menendez and sent to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry.

The Pentagon has been debating how to respond to this land-reclamation work. In May it sent the USS Fort Worth on a week-long cruise through the Spratlys, literally testing the waters for a change in policy. The vessel was shadowed by a Chinese frigate and reportedly encountered “multiple [Chinese] naval vessels.”

The Fort Worth is a new Littoral Combat Ship that is specifically designed to operate close to shore and in shallow water, like the waters of the South China Sea. It is permanently based in Singapore and will eventually be joined by three others like her.

The Pentagon undoubtedly analyzed the Fort Worth’s cruise with an eye to the next step. Conceivably, that could include entering within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands to demonstrate that Washington does not, in accordance with international law, recognize artificial islands as sovereign territory. The US Navy routinely conducts what it calls “Freedom of Navigation Operations” by sailing into waters of countries, sometimes friends, that it believes are not acting according to international maritime laws.

China would undoubtedly react badly to such an exercise, especially if it were accompanied by any Japanese warships. One likely response would be to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the entire Spratly group. Such a zone would require aircraft passing through the zone to file a flight plan and respond to any directions from Chinese fighters. Once the reclamation work is completed, China will have several airstrips capable of handling high-performance jets to enforce it.

The only other such Chinese zone covers much of the East China Sea, including the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. When it was announced in November, 2013, it was thought that it would quickly extend to the full coastline. That hasn’t happened as yet. It shows that the ADIZ is not really meant for air defense but as a counter in a geopolitical battle of wills. It would give China the appearance of annexing the South China Sea without really annexing it.

Todd Crowell is the author of The Coming War between China and Japan, published by Amazon Kindle Singles.