(Sankei: October 28, 2015 – p. 2)
The U.S. government deployed an Aegis destroyer to pass through waters within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands in the South China Sea, which China claims sovereignty over. In response, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, “I would prefer not to comment on it,” at a press conference held on Oct 27. However, he emphasized in reference to China’s maritime advancement that “unilateral actions to increase tensions are a common concern of the international community.”
Regarding the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s criticism of the U.S. warship’s passage, Suga also said, “It is important for the international community to cooperate for the protection of free and peaceful waters.” On the subject of information sharing between Japan and the U.S. on the U.S. warship’s movement, Suga only said that “close information exchange is underway,” avoiding mentioning prior notification by the U.S.
The government, together with Western countries, intends to continue urging China to renounce its reclamation of reefs and construction of a runway, which pose a military threat. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida emphasized in a press conference on the same day, “Actions in accordance with international laws should be honored.”
With respect to the possible response by the Self-Defense Force (SDF) to the deployment of the U.S. Aegis destroyer, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani explained, “We don’t have any concrete plan.” The minister pointed out, “It is important for coastal countries to act based on the rule of laws.”
Japan-U.S. joint patrol scheme
The new security laws passed in September will significantly expand the range of cooperation between the SDF and the U.S. military. Under the security laws, the two governments envision Japan-U.S. joint operations in the South China Sea where the tension is increasing on account of the U.S. warship’s latest passage. If the SDF operates in the South China Sea under the new laws, what kind of activities do the two governments expect the SDF to engage in, and what will the SDF be able to do there?
The U.S. side strongly hopes that Japan will participate in deterrence against China in the South China Sea. In January, the commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, whose home port is the U.S. Navy Yokosuka Base (Yokosuka City, Kanagawa Prefecture), said, “It makes sense for the SDF to operate in the South China Sea in the future.”
The concrete activity they have in mind is joint reconnaissance and surveillance (patrol) by the SDF and the U.S. military in peacetime. Warships of the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) may cruise the area with the U.S. military vessels for “joint exercises,” or MSDF P3Cs may fly over the area for surveillance.
In the press conference on Oct. 27, Suga denied the possibility of joint patrols at this juncture by saying, “We have no plan to participate in such operations.” However, there are some proponents who are calling for Japan’s active engagement by saying, “As the South China Sea is a critical sea lane for Japan, ensuring safe passage is not somebody else’s problem” (in the words of a former MSDF official). A plan to conduct joint patrols under a trilateral framework by inviting Australia to join has also been proposed.
If joint patrols are realized, “the protection of the U.S. warships in peacetime,” which will be enabled by the new security laws, will apply. Although conventional laws have allowed the SDF only to protect itself during joint activities with U.S. vessels, the new security laws will allow the SDF to conditionally use firearms to protect American warships under attack. “Mutual protection” will enable the SDF to conduct more effective reconnaissance and surveillance.
If a military conflict breaks out between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea and the situation meets the condition stipulated in the new laws as “a situation that may seriously impact Japan’s peace and safety,” the government will assume it is a “serious impact situation,” which will enable Japan to provide rear area support for the U.S. It was unclear whether or not Japan could engage in a contingency in the South China Sea under the old Laws Concerning Measures to Ensure the Peace and Security of Japan in Situations in Areas near Japan. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has indicated that the South China Sea would be included in the areas where the concept of “serious impact situation” applies.
However, there are many issues concerning Japan’s involvement in the situation in the South China Sea. For example, the protection of U.S. warships in peacetime requires the establishment of the SDF’s rules of engagement (ROE) according to the new security laws. A government official said, “Japan’s hands are full with the East China Sea.” Defense Minister Nakatani only said on Oct 27, “How Japan will respond to the situation in the South China Sea is a subject to be fully examined in the future.”