China and Japan: At it Again?

Sino-Japanese tensions have been back in the news, with a series of Japanese naval visits and manoeuvres. Chinese state-run press agency Xinhua denounced Abe on 29 March, calling Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a ‘warlord,’ and saying that these actions ‘will only serve to endanger the Japanese public’s right to live in peace and, more importantly, pose a severe challenge to peace in the Asia-Pacific region, which is already vulnerable.’ These criticisms are hardly new in the grand scheme of Sino-Japanese disputes. However, what makes them different is their origin: China and Japan have long disputed the ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, but Japan has recently became involved in the South China Sea as well.

Image courtesy of Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael A. Lantron, © 2008, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael A. Lantron, © 2008, some rights reserved.

The Sino-Japanese dispute in the East China Sea revolved around a contested set of islands, called the Senkaku Islands by Japan, and the Diaoyu Islands by China. Both countries claim these islands as their own. Japan claims that the islands were terra nullius when they were surveyed by Japan in 1895, and sovereignty remained undisputed until the 1970s, when oil reserves were discovered under the islands. Since then, China has argued that the Diaoyu Islands were long part of China, and that the islands are conquests of Imperial Japan which ought to be returned. As of now, Japan controls the islands via a nearby military base on the island of Yonaguni, just 150km south of the disputed area.

On the other hand, maritime disputes in the South China Sea involve a large number of actors: China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. The objects of desire are two island chains: the Paracel Islands, close to the Chinese province of Hainan, and the Spratly Islands to the south. Similarly to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands debates, the area surrounding these islands holds a large amount of oil and natural gas reserves; in addition, these islands are near the busy international shipping routes which head north into China from the Straits of Malacca. What differentiates these disputes is the assymetric power in the South China Sea: China has been able to enforce its sovereignty claims despite the protestations of other South China Sea littoral states. Despite US rhetoric—as well as sovereignty operations, such as that conducted by the USS Lassen in October—China remains in firm control of these islands, even constructing military bases on artificial sandbars.

However, recent Japanese actions have suggested that these two disputes may be blending into one another. While Japan has historically remained aloof from South China Sea disputes, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) has recently injected itself into the South China Sea. Three recent movements by the JMSDF illustrate this change in policy.

Firstly, two MSDF destroyers, the Ariake and the Setogiri, both made a port call at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. This was the first port call made by a MSDF vessel in Vietnam; moreover, the Paracel and Spratly Islands are relatively close to Cam Ranh Bay. Cam Ranh Bay itself is an old Soviet naval base repurposed by Vietnam. According to Japan Times, ‘The two destroyers are expected to conduct joint drills with the Vietnamese navy. The maneuvers will be part of training for MSDF officer candidates.’ Given that Japanese Defence Minister Onodera met with his Vietnamese counterpart to discuss ongoing maritime disputes, the message is clear: Japan is now involved in the South China Sea.

Prior to their stop in Vietnam, these two warships joined a Japanese submarine in the Philippines, at the Subic Bay naval station. According to a source quoted in The Diplomat, ‘[the visit] sends a message. It is important for Japan to show its presence.’ Like Vietnam, the Philippines is also threatened by expansionist Chinese policy in the South China Sea. These disputes have captured headlines, as Chinese naval vessels and Vietnamese fishing boats have clashed over the Scarborough Shoal. Both Japanese visits, to Vietnam and to the Philippines, demonstrated a renewed Japanese commitment to defensive ties with South East Asian littoral states, in direct contrast to Chinese interests.

Lastly, Japan sent its helicopter carrier, the Ise, to participate in joint exercises hosted by Indonesia in the South China Sea, in early April. This participation was meant to show ‘a strong message to keep China in check.’ While a helicopter carrier may not seem like much of a threat, the ship could easily be modified to carry either MV-22 Ospreys or the F-35B, the short takeoff/vertical landing variant of the joint strike fighter. These capabilities mean that the Ise is very capable of projected Japanese power into the South China Sea—a fact of which the Chinese foreign policy establishment appears to be well aware.

These actions also take place within a broader context of a Japanese strategic shift. This change in Japan’s strategic posture dates to the reinterpretation of Article Nine of the Japanese Constitution. This article stated that Japan would ‘forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation,’ making pacificism a fundamental point of Japan’s foreign policy. The 2015 change reinterpreted the constitution to allow for collective self-defence.

But this shift translates to more than just strategic posture: Japan has also been engaged in a substantial arms build-up over the past few years. The aforementioned Ise, the Japanese ‘not-carrier,’ is a clear example of this. Another example is Japan’s new demonstrator 5th generation fighter, which is meant to signal Japan’s commitment to an indigenously produced combat aircraft.  Japan also purchased a series of new armoured amphibious assault vehicles from BAE systems; it is hard to imagine these amphibious assault capabilities as being directed towards anything other than Japan’s maritime disputes with China. Lastly, Japan’s enthusiasm towards a new set of submarine sales to Australia illustrates a broadening of Japan’s connections with other regional powers.

The various maritime disputes in which China finds itself engaged are becoming more and more interconnected. Despite an avowed preference to solve these disputes in a bilateral setting, China may find it more and more difficult to isolate opposing parties.  This is particularly concerning given the mutual force build-up between Japan and China. While conflict between China and a South East Asian littoral state would end relatively quickly due to the asymmetric capabilities of participating states, the outcome of a Sino-Japanese confrontation would likely take longer to unfold.