By Peter Lee

On the occasion of the U.S.-Japan summit and Prime Minister Abe’s address to a joint session of the US Congress, the U.S. foreign policy and media apparatus experienced what I would term The Abomagasm.

In the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Brown wrote:

With his folksy charm, a nostalgic reference to a Carole King love ballad, and contrition for the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered a vintage performance at a joint session of the U.S. Congress… There’s just no stopping Mr. Abe.

Not because of Abe’s rather turgid, laboriously ingratiating speech, or his rather niggardly “condolences” on U.S. losses in the war against Japan.  And despite Abe’s political platform and personal convictions, which are diametrically opposed to the “victor’s justice” narrative Abe believes that the United States unfairly imposed on Japan’s history, constitution, defense posture, and ambitions as leader of maritime Asia.

No, the Washington Beltway loves Abe because in him the United States has finally found a willing playmate in East Asia.  And that means a much-needed new payday: mission, money, prestige, and power to replace the dwindling returns of the war on terror in the Middle East.

The party is over for the United States as unilateral world hegemon, thanks in part to its success in fostering a growth-oriented post World War II order that has, over seventy years, reduced the U.S. share of the world economy from 50% to 23%.

For the United States to continue to exercise world leadership, allies are now necessary as well as desirable, especially in the West Pacific in the hulking shadow of the People’s Republic of China.

Now, thanks to Abe’s creative (and not very popular) initiative to reinterpret the Japanese constitution away from its explicitly  defensive foundation, the Japanese government now considers itself free to cooperate with the United States in military activities unrelated to direct defense of the Japanese homeland.  The new relationship is incorporated in the revised U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines.

As Kyle Myzokami reported:

Traditionally, the U.S.-Japan alliance has been restricted to Japanese territory. Now, according to the guidelines, the alliance will have a global scope. “The Alliance will respond to situations that will have an important influence on Japan’s peace and security. Such situations cannot be defined geographically.”

Like the South China Sea.

The hot-button topic du jour is that the U.S. and Japan may engage in joint patrols in the South China Sea in order to do, well, whatever.

A rather muddled Reuters exclusive composed a tasty word salad out of maritime claims, territorial claims, dodgy island building, and freedom of navigation in the short space of three sentences, giving the impression that the concept and rules of engagement might still be in the workout stage:

Japanese air patrols in an area where China is pushing disputed territorial claims, including though a massive program of land reclamation, would risk antagonizing Beijing.

But defense officials in Tokyo worry that doing nothing would allow China to eventually impose its authority over a region through which $5 trillion of sea-borne trade passes ever year – much of it heading to and from Japan.

“We have to show China that it doesn’t own the sea,” said the Japanese source.

“Protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea from the PRC threat” is pretty much a canard originally invoked in 2010 to insert the US in the region in the absence of exploitable alliance relationships.  The nation actually feeling the freedom of navigation threat is the PRC — from the U.S. (and now Japanese) military forces — which is why China is investing billions to pipeline its Middle East energy imports via Myanmar and Pakistan and avoid the Malacca Strait/South Sea bottleneck.

Joint patrols aren’t going to do much for island sovereignty/island building claims absent attempts to claim a new outcrop through military action, which the PRC in recent years has been loath to do.  The U.S. takes no position on sovereignty disputes and there is no mechanism for resolving them other than bilateral negotiation or a joint agreement to submit to binding arbitration.

The real action has to do with Exclusive Economic Zones or EEZs, in the South China Sea, and the exploitation of fishery and hydrocarbon resources they support.  Conflict becomes imminent if, as is widely expected, the Arbitration Panel of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea rules in early 2016 that the notorious “nine dash line” has no legal standing, and the PRC’s SCS neighbors try to assert their Exclusive Economic Zone maritime claims within the defunct line.  Since the PRC does not recognize the jurisdiction of the panel (it opted out in 2006), the stage is set for some interesting goings-on in the areas of fishing activities and hydrocarbon exploration.

Confrontations have already occurred at Scarborough Shoal, where the PRC has posted ships to deny the uninhabitable atoll to Philippine fishermen.  However, the dispute everybody cares most about is probably Reed Bank, an underwater feature near the Spratlys and inside the Philippines’ claimed 200-mile EEZ. Reed Bank holds out the promise of a major hydrocarbon payday for the Philippine government and is coveted by the PRC.

In the past, the PRC has enthusiastically played the role of maritime energy bully in the South China Sea, harassing survey vessels that Vietnamese and Philippine ventures have attempted to deploy, and in 2014 dispatching its enormous semisubmersible drilling rig, the HYSY-981 into Vietnam-claimed waters with an accompanying armada of support vessels, seemingly to demonstrate China possessed the capability and will to drill wherever it wants to.

The U.S. has offered increasingly open support to the Philippines in its disputes with the PRC, including encouragement on the arbitration claim, and has already provided relatively discrete backup (together with a boatload of junketing journos) to make sure the PRC did not block the resupply of the Philippine outpost (actually a beached freighter) on Second Thomas Shoal in 2014.

Assuming the UNCLOS decision favors the Philippines, the United States can now step up to protect the vital economic and security interests and relatively unambiguous legal rights of the Philippines.  And thanks to the defense guidelines, Japan (which has also provided relatively sub rosa support to the Philippines) can pitch in.  And the Philippines, especially its military sector, which is vociferous about standing up to China, will have the opportunity to combine with the U.S. and Japan in a more formal, overt effort with just a little bit of constitutional stretching.  Per Reuters:

A U.S. military source said a decision to begin flights in the South China Sea could prompt Tokyo to ask the Philippines for access to air bases under disaster relief training and other joint training exercises. This would give Japanese aircraft added range to stay out on patrol longer, he said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

A senior Philippine military source said such access would not currently be possible, because Manila does not have any military co-operation agreement with Tokyo similar to the pact it has with Washington, which allows U.S. ships to use its bases to re-fuel, re-supply and make emergency repairs.

But Philippine President Benigno Aquino, one of the most vocal regional critics of China’s reclamation program, is due to meet Abe in Tokyo in June, when the South China Sea issue is certain to be discussed.

I expect the way this is supposed to play out is that the Philippines and their non-PRC partners venture out to survey, drill, and exploit Reed Bank under the aegis of the United States and Japan, while the PRC fumes impotently on the sidelines…or risks a confrontation that places it on the wrong side of international law and world opinion.

The alternate scenario is that the PRC pre-emptively swarms Reed Bank with its own drilling operation and defies the United States to impede “freedom of navigation” and perhaps even employ military force to evict the PRC from a maritime zone it claims as its own.  I wonder if that scenario engages the interest of the United States as it ponders PRC motives for its high-speed/high-cost island-building exercises.  Quixotic sand-shifting?  Or support bases for a new strategic play in the South China Sea to be launched before, not after the UNCLOS decision comes down?

I don’t believe that the United States or, for that matter, anyone else has ever engaged in military action to evict a hydrocarbon carpetbagger from a third-country EEZ.  But in the wonderful new world of US-Japan defense cooperation in the South China Sea anything is, I suppose, possible.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of U.S. policy with Asian and world affairs.

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