Will Japan Flex Its Naval Power in South China Sea?

In a startling interview with Reuters, Admiral Robert Thomas, commander of the US Seventh Fleet, said that America would welcome Japan patrolling the South China Sea, south of the Japanese islands and far beyond the country’s current area of operations. Tokyo has no current plans to send planes and ships into that body of water, but Beijing, which aggressively patrols there, is already upset.

“I think that JSDF operations in the South China Sea make sense in the future,” Thomas said, using the acronym for the Japan Self-Defense Forces. The admiral’s comment signaled Japan would soon take on responsibilities beyond its vicinity because Washington and Tokyo are now in discussions to revise bilateral security guidelines.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been advocating an increased military role for his nation, which has been constrained by its so-called Peace Constitution. Article 9 of that document, which went into effect in 1947, does not permit the country to maintain “land, sea, and air forces” or even to defend itself in the event of attack—“the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation.” Abe would like to amend Article 9, but he and his predecessors have essentially written much of the provision out of existence through “interpretations.” Despite constitutional restrictions, Japan possesses one of the most capable militaries in East Asia.

Now, Abe has found an important backer for his expanding ambitions. “We would agree with Admiral Thomas that those kinds of patrols and activity is welcome and will help contribute to stability in the region,” said Admiral John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, within hours of the release of the comments of the Seventh Fleet commander. “There’s no reason for China or any other nation to look at it any differently.”

Perhaps so, but Beijing was unconvinced by American assurances. “Countries outside the region should respect the endeavor of countries in the region to safeguard peace and stability, and refrain from sowing discord among other countries and creating tensions,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

China’s academics were not so restrained. Shen Dingli of Fudan University, writing in People’s Daily, said that “some superpower outside the region” is “anxious to see the world in disorder.”

The most interesting response, however, came from Mark Valencia, an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, in Hainan Province. Valencia, who almost invariably propagates Beijing-friendly themes, warns the move could be the “tipping point” for war and then states the region would not support increased Japanese activity. “If truly intended and implemented, this would be the most insensitive and provocative US/Japan move yet in Asia,” he writes on the Diplomat website. “Indeed, a regional military-related role for the former brutal, racist, still-feared and, for many, insufficiently repentant conqueror of China and Southeast Asia would set off alarm bells throughout the region.”

In fact, Japanese patrols would almost certainly be welcomed by others in the region. They certainly would be in the Philippines. At the end of last month, Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Tuvera Gazmin met Japan’s Defense Minister Gen Nakatani in Tokyo, where they signed a memo on cooperation contemplating military exchanges, training, and transfers of technology and equipment. “Common security concerns provide an opportunity to deepen defense cooperation,” Gazmin told his Japanese counterpart.

How about Vietnam? Hanoi and Tokyo expanded their military partnership in March. In August, Japan donated six vessels to Vietnam for maritime security.

Indonesia? At the beginning of this month, the Indonesian ambassador to Japan said Jakarta would soon sign a defense partnership with the Japanese.

And the region as a whole? At the end of May, Abe gave the keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, and he took the opportunity to introduce East Asia to the “new Japanese.” “These ‘new Japanese,’ ” he explained, “are Japanese who are determined ultimately to take on the peace, order, and stability of this region as their own responsibility.”

At the beginning of this decade, East Asians would have shuddered if anyone Japanese had spoken those words. Virtually no one in Tokyo would have uttered them.

There is one reason why Abe could get away with saying such things at a high-profile setting. Countries are now more concerned about the Chinese than Abe’s soldiers, sailors, and pilots. Beijing has done the seemingly impossible: make Japanese military involvement in the region not only acceptable but sought after.

So Valencia is wrong when he writes that “alarm bells” will ring when Japanese planes begin flying over the South China Sea.

The land of the rising sun, for better or worse, is about to return to the region. 

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