Japan should expand its current scheme for military engagement and involvement with Southeast Asian militaries. Its Self Defense Force should join US Navy 7th Fleet patrols and exercises in the Southeast Asia region – even if not specifically Freedom of Navigation Operations. Australian forces might join with JSDF and the Americans as well.  If Japan routinely conducts such operations in and around the South China Sea, it will have the same – or even more – effect as the orchestrated Freedom of Navigation Operations.

The Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA)’s overwhelming vindication of the Philippine position in its South China Sea dispute with China surprised many observers.  China’s response did not surprise – as it promptly declared the Tribunal’s ruling “a piece of waste paper.”

Japan is belatedly strengthening defenses in its southern islands and the adjacent East China Sea and increasing its military engagement in Southeast Asia
Japan is belatedly strengthening defenses in its southern islands and the adjacent East China Sea and increasing its military engagement in Southeast Asia

Attention has now shifted to the United States, the only nation able to take on China and stiffen regional backbones opposing Chinese domination of the South China Sea.  While the Americans get the attention – and rightly so – ‘pacifist’ Japan’s use of its military to counter China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea region and beyond deserves more attention than it gets.

Having lived close to China for centuries, the Japanese are less sanguine about their neighbor – and are particularly afraid of China controlling the vital sea lanes through the South China Sea.  However, until recently, Japan was unable to persuade the United States to share its concerns.

Undeterred by US ambivalence, starting several years ago,Japan quietly began implementing a defense strategy to influence events in the South China Sea.  This presents an ongoing quandary for the Japanese government, since what Japan does in the South China Sea risks a Chinese response in the East China Sea, part of which is Japanese territorial waters and includes the disputed Senkaku Islands.

Japan’s two-part approach

 First, Japan is belatedly strengthening defenses in its southern islands (the Nansei Shoto or Ryukyu chain) and the adjacent East China Sea.  A cornerstone of this effort is the deployment of Ground Self Defense Force (GSDF) surveillance detachments (eventually including missile and air defense units) on several islands in the chain.  Additional Air Self Defense Force assets have also been deployed to Okinawa.  The Japanese Navy – and its submarines – has always been in the area.

Second, Japan is markedly increasing its military engagement in Southeast Asia and nearby areas.  This is a seismic shift.  Japan has provided the Philippines and Vietnam with surplus patrol boats and gradually expanded Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF) participation in regional military exercises such as Cobra Gold and Talisman Sabre.

Also, the Maritime Self Defense Force is conducting more port visits and bilateral exercises – with a Japanese submarine and two destroyers recently pulling into Subic Bay.  The Japan Coast Guard (JCG) has also been active, even conducting a joint training exercise in Manila Bay right after the PCA ruling.  And Japan is making particular efforts to build military ties with Australia – whom it considers a strategic partner.

However, Japan has deflected suggestions that it join in the US Navy’s Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea or conduct its own FONOPS or aerial overflights to directly challenge China’s territorial expansion.  Japan has reasons for holding back on FONOPS.

 Japan’s partial self-restraint in the South China Sea owes largely to fear of countervailing Chinese pressure in the East China Sea – especially around the Senkaku Islands.  China has shown it can ‘turn up the heat’ via more frequent and more aggressive intrusions by Chinese ships and aircraft.  To date, these have mostly been Coast Guard or other ‘white hull’ vessels, while People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warships have usually – but not always – stayed over the horizon.  The Chinese air force conducts a similar cat and mouse game.

This implicit Chinese threat compounds the JSDF and JCG’s longstanding fear of being swarmed.  The Japanese can do the math.  The PLA has more ships, aircraft, and personnel than the JSDF.  It can be in more places, more often, and with more hardware than JSDF can match except for unsustainable short-term surges.  And this mismatch is widening.

There is also China’s fishing fleet and ‘maritime militia’ to worry about.  In Fall 2014, China sent over 200 fishing boats to Japan’s Ogasawara Islands to illegally harvest red coral.  Japan was hard pressed to respond to this ‘non-military’ threat – and ultimately could do little.  Such flotillas are just as easily diverted north to the Senkaku Islands – as both sides know.

Also, in the East China Sea, China is even less constrained by ‘legalities’ – as posed by the Hague Tribunal and the 2002 Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.  Moreover, the East China Sea wrestling match is almost entirely between China and Japan – unlike the multiparty dispute in the South China Sea.

China would like nothing more than ‘one shot’ from the Japanese – and has been doing its best to provoke one. JSDF has not yet taken the bait.  This Chinese version of the Marco Polo Bridge incident would allow China to cast itself as the aggrieved party and provide cover to establish a stronger presence, occupy territory, and shape the propaganda narrative.

Japan still has good options

 Given these worries in the nearby East China Sea,  Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s administration treads carefully in the South China Sea – and understandably holds ‘in reserve’ direct involvement in FONOPS patrols and overflights – either by itself or with others.  However, Japan still has good options.

Some friendly advice to GOJ might include:

Continue and expand its current scheme for military engagement and involvement with Southeast Asian militaries.  Keep building defense ties with Australian forces – and even with the Indians, who have similar interests in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea.

Next, the JSDF should join US Navy 7th Fleet patrols and exercises in the Southeast Asia region – even if not specifically FONOPS.  The Japanese Navy has already done this, in fact, and on occasion plugged into USN patrols without fanfare.  Do more of this.  The US Navy and MSDF have admirably developed genuine interoperability over the years.  One wishes a fraction of the effort devoted to Okinawa ‘real estate’ issues was applied to creating real operational ties between the JSDF and all US forces.

Australian forces might join with JSDF (and the Americans) as well.  The new Australian and Japanese amphibious forces are a perfect platform for joint operations – particularly HA/DR – in and around the South China Sea.  Although ASEAN is unlikely to ever act unanimously on the South China Sea matter, certain member nations might participate under the right circumstances.

Ultimately, if the JSDF continues getting out more with other regional and partner militaries and routinely conducts operations in and around the South China Sea, it will have the same – or even more – effect as orchestrated, episodic FONOPS.

Stabilize the East China Sea

 Japan’s simultaneous effort to establish a useful military presence in the Nansei Shoto and East China Sea must continue.  This will be more effective if JSDF creates a permanent Joint Task Force charged with defending Japan’s southern islands and surrounding waters – perhaps called ‘JTF Nansei Shoto’.  This will require better cooperation between JSDF services, improved communications – that are currently sub-par, and increased defense spending – a constant, debilitating problem for the JSDF.

Importantly, even if Japan does everything mentioned above to defend the East China Sea, by itself it will be hard pressed if China becomes truly aggressive.  Thus, the single most important thing is for Japanese and US forces to exercise, patrol, and operate together in the East China Sea/Nansei Shoto region – and do it regularly.

For starters, the joint MSDF-USN ANNUALEX exercise should be conducted west of Okinawa – not east of the island.  A range of other bilateral, year-round military activities in the East China Sea is essential.  And if the US ever wishes to unambiguously demonstrate its position on the Japan-China East China Sea dispute, it can use the maritime firing ranges near the Senkaku Islands as it is lawfully entitled – but hasn’t used since the Carter-era.

Ironically, ‘pacifist’ Japan has an energetic, reasonably coherent military approach to China’s expansion. It is by and large doing its part in both Southeast Asia and the East China Sea, and as long as Prime Minister Abe is in power, these efforts will continue.  However, the key – in both the East and South China Seas – is to get as close as possible to the Americans – as Abe correctly recognizes.  Indeed, solidly linked Japanese and US forces – with ensuing strengthened political ties – pose huge problems for Chinese strategists considering their next moves.

Oddly enough, after years of telling Japan to do more, whether the Americans will allow Japan to get close enough is another question – given the US’s approach toward China that mixes one part forcefulness with two parts appeasement.  Time and a new American administration will tell.

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with 20 years of experience in Japan as a US diplomat, business executive, and as a US Marine Officer.

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