On Thursday, China delivered new warnings to Japan over its involvement in the South China Sea. Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun, during the ministry’s monthly press conference, said that China would not sit idle as Japan increased its activities in the waters of the South China Sea, where China has long been embroiled in separate disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei over various features in the Spratly group and the Paracel Islands.
“Japan, as a country outside the South China Sea region, has always been attempting to mess up the South China Sea situation and trying to gain interests from the troubled waters,” Yang said. “So we’d like to tell the Japanese side that if Japan wants to conduct joint patrols and joint exercises in China-administered waters, it is just like playing [with] fire and the Chinese military will not sit idle,” Yang added, seemingly threatening a Chinese kinetic response to Japanese involvement in the area.
Earlier this month, Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, speaking in Washington, outlined Japan’s upcoming plans in the South China Sea, which included “Maritime Self Defense Force joint training cruises with the U.S. Navy, bilateral and multilateral exercises with regional navies, as well as providing capacity building assistance to coastal nations.” Inada notably did not reference joint “patrols” with the United States or any other country in her remarks, despite reports to the contrary.
China’s warnings to Japan over its involvement in the South China Sea are far from new. Lately, however, China has come to define a “red line” of sorts, noting that Japanese involvement in the South China Sea would lead to a direct response of some sort. As I discussed last month, China’s envoy in Tokyo allegedly told Japanese officials that, in particular, should the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force join up with U.S.-led freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, that “red line” would have been crossed.
Japan is broadly engaged in the region already. In October 2015, the same week as the USS Lassen carried out the first freedom of navigation operation near a Chinese artificial island in the Spratly group, the MSDF and the U.S. Navy held their first-ever bilateral drill in the South China Sea. Tokyo, moreover, has joined the United States in speaking out in favor of the July 2016 award by a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The award found China’s nine-dash line claim to have no basis in international law and ruled largely in favor of the Philippines, which filed the case in 2013 after a 2012 dispute with China over Scarborough Shoal.
China maintains that the South China Sea disputes should be resolved on a bilateral basis between the parties directly involved, rejecting the involvement of any and all extra-regional countries, including the United States and Japan, in any way.