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Column: South China Sea is different from the Senkakus

(Mainichi: December 22, 2015 – p. 11)

 

 By Chiyako Sato, editorial writer

 

 The international community is increasingly alarmed by China’s building of artificial islands in the Nansha (Spratly) Islands in the South China Sea. The U.S. has dispatched a naval vessel there to safeguard “freedom of navigation.” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe supported this operation and made remarks that hinted at the possibility of deploying the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) in the future. I looked into the issue of SDF deployment in the South China Sea.

 

 An opinion poll conducted by Kyodo News about a week after Abe’s statement attracted a great deal of attention.

 

 A majority was in favor of dispatching the SDF for surveillance and monitoring of China’s artificial island construction – 52.7% in favor and 39.3% against. This telephone poll was conducted on Nov. 28-29 on 1,014 respondents.

 

 Contrary to the outcome of the poll, the Abe administration is not keen on SDF deployment in the South China Sea. However, this is rather in consideration of the impact on the House of Councillors election next summer. Speculation is rife that this may indeed be considered after the election.

 

 China has set a so-called “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea to mark its sphere of interest. It is undertaking landfill on seven reefs whose ownership is disputed by neighboring countries and building artificial islands there.

 

 Transforming these artificial islands into military bases and using ports and runways there for military purposes will boost China’s military presence in the South China Sea exponentially. The Defense Ministry is wary that if runways built on the Fiery Cross and other reefs come to serve as the operational base for fighters and bombers, the Chinese armed forces will be able to cover the entire South China Sea area.

 

 The South China Sea issue should be resolved diplomatically. It is good news that Permanent Court of Arbitration proceedings have begun on the case filed by the Philippines based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to challenge China’s claim of sovereignty. However, China is claiming that the court has no jurisdiction on this matter.

 

 The U.S. has judged that unfortunately, it will be difficult to resolve the issue through diplomacy alone, so military deterrence is also needed. It dispatched an Aegis ship within 12 nautical miles (approximately 22 kilometers) of the artificial island. This action is understandable.

 

 The U.S. is now likely to want the SDF to take up surveillance and monitoring duties to reduce the burden on itself.

 

 However, the deployment of the SDF is not such a simple matter.

 

 First, how this will affect the situation in the South China Sea needs to be considered. The SDF is currently engaged in surveillance and reconnaissance in the East China Sea, including the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa. Extending this to the South China Sea will further heighten tensions with China. Surveillance and monitoring in the East China Sea may also be weakened and China may increase the activities of its government ships and armed forces in this sea area.

 

 The Maritime SDF currently has 47 destroyers. However, in addition to Japan’s defense, two ships are participating in antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Considering training needs and regular maintenance and repairs, it really has no ships to spare.

 

 It will also be difficult to send P-3C patrol planes to the South China Sea for surveillance and reconnaissance.

 

 The P-3Cs will take around four hours one-way to fly from Naha to the South China Sea. Since this aircraft can only fly up to 10 hours at a stretch, this means it can only perform patrol duties for about 2 hours. While the advanced P-1 patrol planes can fly a bit longer, this does not seem to be a realistic option.

 

 For sure, it will be possible to secure supply bases in the Philippines and elsewhere, but it remains to be seen if the Philippines will be willing to do this at the expense of incurring China’s wrath.

 

 There might also be legal issues. While some would claim that the enactment of the security laws authorizes regular surveillance and monitoring missions in the South China Sea, there seems to be some misunderstanding here.

 

 Even the security laws do not include surveillance and reconnaissance in logistic support for the U.S. forces.

 

 If surveillance and monitoring is to be undertaken, this will have to be based on the provisions on “research and study” under Article 4 of the Defense Ministry Organization Law.

 

 In which case, the law requires that the operation must be necessary for Japan’s defense. Opinions are bound to be divided on whether surveillance and reconnaissance in the South China is essential for Japan’s defense.

 

 Above all, Japan’s overall strategy for SDF deployment in the South China Sea – how will this affect relations with China and the U.S., what is the goal — is more important than specific issues.

 

 SDF deployment in the South China Sea is a completely different matter from similar operations in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands, which are within Japan’s national territory. More thoroughgoing discussion on this is necessary.

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