Features | Security | East Asia

Japan’s Options in the South China Sea

With some reverse thinking, smaller nations may be able to deter a major power.

By Yoji Koda for
Japan’s Options in the South China Sea
Credit: AP Photo/Emily Wang

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) possesses overwhelming military capabilities in the South China Sea (SCS). And it is clear that no single nation in this region, Japan included, is able to match those capabilities.

For the littoral nations of the SCS – Vietnam and the Philippines in particular – China’s robust military capabilities and its many controversial and militarized/fortified artificial islands have been casting much darker clouds over their policy planning toward China.

In addition to these security elements, every nation in the region has economic ties with China. In this context, China has an increased capacity to wield influence through its economic strength.

At the same time, however, almost all regional players want a clear U.S. policy toward China as well as a visible U.S. military presence. They also want to maintain good economic relationships with the United States.

Under the current security situation, China seems to enjoy an advantage over the United States. And today’s stalemate in the SCS complicates Washington’s policies and strategies toward China’s diplomatic and military actions. At the same time, however, the standstill does constrain China’s scope for political and military maneuvering.

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As such, there is still considerable room left for the United States, Japan and other countries to respond to China’s challenge in the SCS.

At this point, it is better to analyze the best options. Of course, there are many things that could be done, but the option I outline below perhaps deserves to have the highest priority.

Neutralizing China’s artificial islands

China’s militarization/fortification of key artificial islands in the SCS poses a serious threat to all the military forces operating in the SCS and to littoral nations – especially, again, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Since 2015, there have been multiple reports of PLA deploying military units on its man-made artificial islands. It is also public knowledge that China has completed building airfields: one on the expanded Woody Island in the Paracels and three on newly reclaimed artificial islands in the Spratly Islands; for example, the Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs. China has also built and improved modern port facilities on all artificial/expanded islands.

Beijing strongly rebuts the frequent criticisms issued by the international community, especially from the U.S., countering that any actions to protect the nation’s territory are matters of national sovereignty. In addition, China occasionally makes more benign but disingenuous announcements on its establishment of meteorological and navigation-aid stations with civilian personnel on these artificial islands.

By taking full advantage of the large-scale facility build-up and Beijing’s support, the PLA has demonstrated its capability to deploy the latest-model H-6K bombers and J-11 fighters to Woody Island. The deployment of military air assets to the other three air-capable artificial islands has not been officially announced, but it is considered to be a matter of time before the PLA shows a similar capability. As for other military assets, the Chinese government does not confirm media reports, but it has also become a well-known fact that the PLA has deployed a wide range of modern military equipment that includes various types of radars, anti-air/surface missiles and guns, electronic warfare systems and other equipment, together with supporting facilities such as barracks, sports fields, supply and maintenance depots, and ammunition magazines.

In this regard, China’s militarization and fortification of the SCS has been progressing on a substantial scale. However China’s fortified islands are by no means impregnable, and the PLA operating in the SCS is no “superman,” for various reasons.

Japan’s experience of defending distant islands in the Pacific during World War Two clearly shows the extremely difficult nature of such operations in times of war. For China, maintaining air and sea control and superiority against adversary forces will be an absolute necessity, yet an extremely difficult task for PLA units to achieve. Another key condition to defending the islands will be to maintain supply lines from the Chinese mainland and Hainan Island, which is a forward base for staging forces and operations to protect China’s remote islands. However, China’s fortified remote islands, without any logistical support, are simply dead wood. That was the most serious and bitter lesson that Imperial Japan learned through its island-defense operations in World War Two. Imperial Japan failed to defend a single island against the amphibious assault operations of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

As a counter to the PLA’s challenges in the SCS, U.S. forces have played a leading role. However, there are measures that littoral countries should pursue as well. In particular, the roles of Vietnam and the Philippines could become critical.

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An advantage of the two nations is their geographic location in relation to the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Vietnam’s coastline is an ideal location to check and control Hainan Island and Woody Island in the Paracels, while Palawan Island of the Philippines is in an optimum location to cover all the artificial islands in the Spratlys.

Many strategic thinkers simply draw arcs of missile-shooting range from China’s artificial islands, and explain the potential dangers. However, a similar but reversed situation would emerge if Vietnam and the Philippines properly deployed land-attack missiles with sufficient firing range to reach the artificial islands. If this were to be done, China’s islands, which have been regarded as “game changers” in the SCS, could be described as a “group of helpless frogs confronted by big snakes”!

For Vietnam, there is another naval strategy which could be developed. That is, an isolation operation against Woody Island. Woody Island is China’s “Capital Island” in the SCS, and it is the first stepping stone to the South. Vietnam should develop a strategy and plan to deploy its six Kilo-class submarines for this purpose. Were it to do so, China’s logistic capabilities to support the Southern islands would be substantially reduced.

Last but not least, the two nations have to develop and improve their own air defense and coastal defense capabilities to protect these new military assets.

At times, recently, the current South China Sea situation has seemed much calmer than before, given the noisier and more visible U.S.-China trade war, tensions with North Korea and the protests in Hong Kong. In fact, the reality is different. China has been taking advantage of the smoke-screen effect of the noisier issues and quietly pushing its militarization attempt throughout the SCS region.

Of course, Japan and the U.S. must take determined actions to counter China’s challenges, but this is much that needs to be done by other players as well. The measures described above may be modest, but they would have implications for the PLA, forcing exertions and costs exceeding China’s operational resources. This could be a strategy for smaller nations to deter a major power.

Yoji Koda is former Commander in Chief of the JMSDF Fleet.