Last week, reports in the Japanese press, citing diplomatic sources, noted that China’s envoy in Tokyo had sent a strong message to Japan about its involvement in the South China Sea. According to Kyodo News Agency, Amabassador Cheng Yonghua had told a Japanese official that should Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force join up with U.S.-led freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea, Japan would have cross a “red line.”
Asked about these reports at a recent press conference, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Defense did not walk back the strong language. “We are firmly opposed to Japanese attempts to send its self-defense forces to join the so-called Freedom of Navigation operations by the U.S. in the South China Sea,” Colonel Wu Qian, spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, remarked.
Reiterating China’s previous position on Japan’s involvement in the disputes in the South China Sea, Wu added that “Japan is not a concerned party in the South China Sea issue, and has no right to intervene in relevant disputes.” Addressing the possibility that China would use military force to respond to Japan’s participation in FONOPs, Wu added that “The Chinese armed forces are firm in its resolve and determination to safeguard the sovereignty, territorial integrity and maritime interests and rights of the country, and will resolutely deal with various threats and challenges.”
Japan and the United States held their first bilateral naval drill in the South China Sea in October 2015, the same week that the U.S. Navy held its first FONOP by sailing the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef and other nearby features in the Spratly Islands. Since then, the United States has conducted two other FONOPs: One in January 2016 in the Paracel Islands and another in early May 2016 in the Spratlys. Keeping with the pace of previous FONOPs, the U.S. Navy should be due to stage another operation soon in the South China Sea.
The possibility of Japan, or other countries, including Australia, participating in U.S.-led FONOPs has increased in the aftermath of a July 12 award in a case filed by the Philippines against China on maritime entitlements in the South China Sea. In that decision, a five-judge tribunal at the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration unanimously ruled that China’s nine-dashed line claim in the South China Sea held no meaning under international law, among other findings.
Interestingly, the Chinese position on Japan’s participation in the South China Sea may unwittingly concede that the United States has legitimate interests in the sea. In the aftermath of U.S. FONOPs in the South China Sea, Beijing has said that Washington’s actions threatened its sovereignty and harmed regional peace, but it hasn’t rejected the notion of the U.S. having legitimate interests in the South China Sea in the way that it seems to have rejected a role for Japan. For instance, after the May FONOP, a Chinese foreign ministry statement noted that the “U.S. places its interests above international law,” acknowledging that the United States did have interests in the South China Sea.
The bilateral context may help explain this difference. China’s warnings to Japan this summer come as the East China Sea, where the two countries dispute the sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, heats up. China has recommended that Washington refrain from diplomatically intervening in efforts between China and Southeast Asian claimants to resolve and manage the South China Sea disputes. With its largely rhetorical denouncements of U.S. FONOPs, China may be acknowledging a legitimate U.S. interest as a superpower.
Like so many aspects of China’s signalling on the South China Sea, there’s a degree of ambiguity in the different treatment meted out to the United States and Japan. What’s clear, however, is that Beijing’s “red line” warning to Tokyo is likely here to stay.