It’s turned out to be an eventful week for the South China Sea. On October 26, the USS Lassen conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) within 12 nautical miles of an artificial land feature that China has reclaimed and been building on since the beginning of this year. China strongly condemned the U.S. action as having “threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, jeopardized the safety of personnel and facilities on the reefs, and damaged regional peace and stability.” But the United States firmly maintains that what its Navy ships did was a routine freedom of navigation operation, which it is entitled to conduct in accordance with the international law.
At China’s request, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson and his Chinese counterpart Wu Shengli had a one-on-one video conference on October 29 regarding the U.S. action. Although no details of their discussion have been released, it is clear that their conversation was triggered by USS Lassen’s sailing near China’s artificial land feature.
In addition, on October 29, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that it accepts the arbitration case that Philippines submitted vis-à-vis China. In the months ahead, the Court will deliberate on four primary questions: (1) status of China’s so-called nine-dash line, (2) the legality of Chinese occupation of various land features in the Spratly Islands, (3) the legality of China’s exploitation of natural resources within areas that would be considered as the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) under the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS), and (4) whether China has interfered with the Philippines’ freedom of navigation in its own EEZ. Washington welcomes this decision, as it has long held the position that the sovereignty claims in South China Sea need to be solved through diplomatic means, including arbitration.
Now that the tide in the international community seems to be converging in the direction of questioning China’s recent assertiveness in its maritime claims in South China Sea, Japan may be tested for its commitment to making a “proactive contribution to peace.”
As one of the countries who have quickly expressed support for the United States’ recent action in South China Sea, Japan will likely be asked to participate in multilateral FONOPS in the South China Sea sooner or later. FONOPS in South China Sea are not meant to be provocative, as they are regarded as a peacetime operation (even though there is inherent risk associated with them). But such operations are meant to send a message that the areas subject to FONOPS does not belong to anybody. They are also meant to discourage unilateral action by any claimant to assert its territorial claim by force.
Since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in December 2012, Japan has consistently proposed that it is ready to participate more robustly in the international community’s efforts to maintain the existing international order and norms. In his first speech returning to the office of prime minister, Abe declared that “Japan is back,” sharing his vision of Japan as a promoter of the rules and defender of the commons, as well as a reliable ally for the U.S. and a partner for other democracies. Almost two years later, in April 2015, Abe reiterated his government’s commitment to the principle of a “proactive contribution to peace” in his speech in front of the U.S. Congress. His government’s own National Security Strategy positions the concept of Japan as a “proactive contributor to peace” as Japan’s core national security policy principle.
Still, an examination of the Abe government’s responses to and assistance on the various security challenges the world faces illustrates that its foreign and security policy choices based on this principle does not represent revolutionary changes. Rather, the demonstration of Japan’s “proactivity” has been done largely through offering more robust financial support rather than sending a greater number of personnel, either Self-Defense Forces (SDF) or civilian. Qualitatively, the approach is not too different from Abe’s predecessors’ time in office.
Japan already is strengthening its engagement with maritime Southeast Asian countries, such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Tokyo provides assistance to these countries to improve their maritime law enforcement capacity through various means, including the transfer of patrol boats and communication equipment, provision of training and other in-kind support (such as increasing the opportunity for joint training between Japan’s SDF and these countries’ armed forces).
If Japan can respond to the call, whether by the U.S., Australia, or maritime Southeast Asian countries, and have Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces participate in the FONOPs in the South China Sea, it will send a unambiguous message that Japan will stand with these countries to defend the freedom of the commons.