Japan’s Options in Countering China’s Maritime Push


The View from Beijing

China appears to be pushing harder to secure its interests in the East and South China Seas since Xi Jinping became general secretary of the Communist Party of China in November 2012. Indeed, many foreign policy experts in China note that Xi will be less likely to compromise on territorial or maritime issues than his predecessor, Hu Jintao.

Previous CPC leaders like Jiang Zemin (1989–2002) and Hu (2002–12) were open to negotiation, as evidenced by the signing of the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea with member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2002 and the Understanding on Japan-China Joint Development in the East China Sea with Japan in 2008. But Xi has pushed forward with the reclamation of reefs and sunken rocks in the South China Sea, building runways and military installations there, despite protests from neighboring countries—including those with competing claims—and from the United States.

These moves are increasingly seen as a matter of course in China. People believe that the only action the country could take in the past, when the country was still weak, to counter the South China Sea claims of other coastal states was to lodge protests. But now that it has more muscle to flex, backing its long-held assertions with force is regarded as being only natural.

Advancing Undeterred

This is the basic premise behind Xi Jinping’s foreign policy. A hardline stance had already begun to appear in the latter half of the Hu Jintao administration, particularly following the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the perceived decline of America’s strength, but it became more pronounced under Xi.

This shift was prompted not merely by domestic opinion; China’s self-image as the world’s number two economy—and by far the biggest in East Asia—moved Beijing to launch new regional initiatives and become a provider of public goods for eastern Eurasia.

Its emergence as a regional hegemon is certainly not the only reason for its uncompromising pursuit of territorial and maritime interests. Xi knows that China has the capacity to build military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea and that none of its rival claimants can stop it. He also assumes that the United States would not intervene; he reasons that Washington is well aware of China’s enhanced military might and the weakness of ASEAN forces, and that it would not risk alienating Beijing or disrupting Sino-ASEAN economic ties.

Freedom of Navigation Operations

Beijing’s growing assertiveness has not, of course, gone unnoticed by policymakers in Washington. The Barack Obama administration announced a rebalance to the Asia-Pacific and committed itself to the region’s economic development. The “pivot” was in deference to China’s rise and not meant to escalate tensions with Beijing—although Washington did, at the same time, seek to strengthen its security ties with Japan and other allies in the region. Obama was quite open to China during his first term, and while he grew more cautious following his reelection, the White House’s China policy has continued to be one mainly of engagement and dialogue.

Washington at long last moved to check China’s land reclamation activities in the South China Sea by sending an Aegis-equipped destroyer, the USS Lassen, to Subi Reef on a freedom of navigation operation. The United States refrains from taking sides on competing territorial claims, though, and the operation was aimed only at warning China that artificial islands, under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, will not entitle it to claim territorial waters and at ensuring that navigation around such islands remains free—without the need to notify Chinese authorities of “innocent passage.”

Beijing’s interpretation of maritime rules does not always conform to that espoused by Western countries or by Japan, but this, in itself, does not mean it is arbitrary or self-serving; not a few countries have views quite similar to those of China.

The freedom of navigation operation elicited a sharp rebuke from Beijing, but are Chinese leaders really concerned about US activities? They know that an American destroyer sailing through the South China Sea is not enough to stop the construction of airfields and other military installations on artificial islands. US leaders are equally aware of this, however, and likely conduct the passes with a broader aim in mind. After all, the two countries conducted joint naval exercises off the coast of Shanghai in November, and China was invited to the US-led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise in 2014. Chinese leaders thus have the impression that the United States is not overly unnerved by China’s activities in the South China Sea. They recognize that Obama’s policy has shifted slightly more toward containment, but not so much as to require a change in Beijing’s course.

Balancing Economic and Security Interests

ASEAN countries find it very difficult to confront China head-on over disputes in the South China Sea because they are not tied by a security alliance like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization linking transatlantic countries. But a number of member states are nonetheless stepping up their coordination and strengthening unity in the face of an increasingly recalcitrant China. They are actively sharing information on their respective situations and on ways to deal with Beijing. Many of them have traditionally had very close economic ties with China and have faced the dilemma of balancing economic benefits against security concerns. They also share a weakness in their coast guard capabilities.

The complaint lodged by the Philippines with the Permanent Court of Arbitration on China’s activities in the South China Sea, though, should act as a mild deterrent. And even if China does not mend its highhanded ways, outward criticism of such tactics will have an impact on international opinion.

Japan as an Interested Party in the South China Sea

Japan is not an entirely disinterested party to the competing claims in the South China Sea. Historically speaking, it occupied almost all the islands during World War II, renouncing the Spratlys in both the San Francisco Peace Treaty and in the Sino-Japanese Peace Treaty with the Republic of China. In one sense, then, the territorial disputes in the latter half of the twentieth century are a result of Japan’s postwar renunciation of those islands.

Even today, the South China Sea remains an important sea lane for Japan, and inasmuch as territorial disputes in the East China Sea are linked with those in the South China Sea, Japan is a party to the conflicting claims in those waters.

Vietnam and other claimant nations recognize that US involvement in these disputes will be limited and have turned to Japan for greater support. Japan is unable to fully meet these expectations, however, as Maritime Self-Defense Force ships are unlikely to be deployed to the South China Sea in the foreseeable future. It may be possible to dispatch Japan Coast Guard vessels, but their capacity is already overstretched in coping with the encroachment of Chinese ships in the East China Sea. The likeliest scenario for the time being is for Japan to continue providing patrol boats and capacity building assistance, including the training of personnel.

Five Approaches to Countering Beijing

What can the international community do to thwart China’s unilateral attempts at territorial expansion? Lodging protests against the construction of military installations on artificial islands has not been very effective to date. But more can probably be done to prevent China from reclaiming any more reefs and building airfields on them. Greater US engagement would significantly facilitate such efforts, and Japan, too, has an important role to play.

Second, steps should be taken to prevent incidents from escalating into open conflict, such as by adopting an agreement among regional states to hinder maritime accidents and by establishing a hotline to deal with any emergencies. This would be helpful not only in the East China Sea but also in the South China Sea.

Third, confronting China’s challenge requires an improvement in the capacity of coast guards and maritime troops of concerned countries, and this is an area where Japan can play an especially important role.

Fourth, further efforts and continued dialogue are required to narrow perception gaps, such as in the interpretation of international laws. China must, of course, be a party to such efforts, and so should such nonregional states as the United States and European countries.

And fifth, public diplomacy efforts must be stepped up to balance the flood of Chinese propaganda bombarding global audiences. Such initiatives, incidentally, would be more effective it they are not limited to sovereignty and territorial claims.

Chinese reclamation efforts in the South China Sea, for instance, are causing grave environmental damage; this could be a potent argument against the landfill projects, as Western civic groups and media organizations often have greater interest in the destruction of beautiful corals than in the disputes about islands far from home. This, in fact, was a point some Western researchers made to me after being briefed on the historical “truths” behind Japan’s territorial claims. After all, what matters in public diplomacy—perhaps even more so than convincing others of the legitimacy of your position—is to grab and hold the attention of your target audience with topics that are of interest to them.

(Originally written in Japanese on December 21, 2015.)
▼Further reading
Maintaining Peace in the South China Sea Bonnie S. Glaser

Japan China Kawashima Shin South China Sea East China Sea public diplomacy freedom of navigation operation Subi Reef maritime disputes