A dangerous game in the South China Sea: Is Japan ready to set sail?

(From the National Interest)

By Benjamin Schreer

Following the freedom of navigation patrols operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea (SCS) by the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen, a key question is whether Washington’s allies will also signal to China that its ‘land reclamation’ activities were in violation with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Japanese navy helicopter carrier Hyūga

Japanese navy helicopter carrier Hyūga

In particular, the U.S. will look to Australia and Japan, its closest allies in the Asia-Pacific who, alongside the Philippines, were quick to provide diplomatic support for the operation. From Canberra’s perspective, it’s important to assess whether Tokyo will be prepared to join U.S. patrols as part of a regional cost imposing strategy on China.

Expectations have been growing that Japan might indeed significantly lift its strategic game in the SCS. They have been nurtured in the recent past by senior Japanese politicians and military leaders. In February this year, Defence Minister, Gen Nakatani, flagged the possibility of Japanese ships joining U.S. patrols in the area.

In June, the Chief of the Joint Staff of the Japan Self-Defence Forces, Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, also indicated that a Japanese FONOP was a future possibility. Moreover, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Japan significantly enhanced its defence cooperation with a number of Southeast Asian countries, most notably the Philippines, Vietnam and more recently Indonesia. For instance, in June 2015 Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force (MSDF) conducted a naval exercise with the Philippines as a means to demonstrate solidarity.

Tokyo also further strengthened its defense relations with its U.S. ally, Australia and India—all of which (to varying degrees) have sought to counter China’s activities in the SCS. The overall impression is that Japan intends to play a greater role in influencing Southeast Asian power dynamics.

However, it’s unlikely that Japanese warships will participate in FONOPS any time soon. Domestically, the Abe government faces an electorate highly sceptical of his efforts to pave the way for a more muscular Japanese strategic and defence policy.

The Prime Minister himself admitted that his successful push for a revision of security laws in September this year, enabling the Japanese Self-Defence Force (JSDF) to fight overseas for the first time since WWII, failed to win popular support. Consequently, a FONOP in the SCS at this point of time would be rejected by a large part of the media, the electorate, the opposition parties and Abe’s coalition partner, the New Komeito. Read more

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here.



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