The Japanese and U.S. governments are increasingly alarmed by China’s unilateral moves to change the maritime status quo amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In a statement released on July 13, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the U.S. position clearer than before, stating that America rejects China’s claims to maritime interests in the South China Sea. In its Defense White Paper released on July 14, the Japanese government criticized China for “relentlessly” trying to alter the status quo in the vicinity of the Senkakus (Okinawa Prefecture).
Meikai University Professor Tetsuo Kotani, who specializes in maritime security, commented: “This is the first time the U.S. has said of its own accord that China has no legal grounds for its claims. U.S. policy on the South China Sea has been raised to a new level.”
Growing U.S. pressure on China is driven by a sense of crisis over China’s increasingly aggressive attempts to change the status quo in the South China Sea. This sea is an important route for the U.S. Navy when it deploys to the Indian Ocean and the Middle East. The U.S. also depends heavily on the South China Sea as a sea lane for trade.
In the Spratly Islands, China has constructed artificial islands equipped with runways measuring some 3,000 meters. These could be used as “unsinkable aircraft carriers” in case of contingencies, according to military affairs sources. The military balance in the South China Sea is gradually tilting in China’s favor. Toward the end of last year, China commissioned a domestically constructed aircraft carrier, the Shandong, at a base on Hainan Island. While other countries were busy fighting the new coronavirus, a Chinese government vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat. In early July, the Chinese military also conducted exercises in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands, over which China and Vietnam are locked in a dispute over territorial rights. China is thus increasing pressure on nations bordering the South China Sea.
Since the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016, China has been playing up its conciliatory efforts by moving forward with discussions with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to formulate a “code of conduct” to prevent conflicts in the South China Sea. According to diplomatic sources in Beijing, however, this effort is likely “a guise to prevent U.S. intervention in the region.”
There is a possibility that China will create an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea. China is poised to steadily proceed with its plans for a military buildup in the South China Sea. China expects that its overwhelming military power will give it an advantage in negotiations with ASEAN.
This month, the U.S. deployed two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to the South China Sea for the first time in six years. It is likely, according to Meikai Professor Kotani, that the Trump administration “will continue the policy of increasing military as well as diplomatic pressure on China.” Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if the U.S. can contain China or can find decisive, effective measures to address Beijing’s actions. (Abridged)