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Opinion: Japan should send its naval ships through the Taiwan Strait

Kosuke Takahashi


Kosuke Takahashi is Tokyo correspondent for Janes Defence Weekly.


Bringing up a lot of good reasons for its self-justification, China never appears to stop assertive behaviors that threaten to undermine regional stability and the rules-based international order.


Most recently, China’s Foreign Ministry said on June 13 that the country “has sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait” and branded as false claims “when certain countries call the Taiwan Strait ‘international waters.'”


According to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, each country’s sovereign territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles (22.2 kilometers) beyond its coast.


Given that the narrowest part of the Taiwan Strait is 130 kilometers, that means that at least an 85-kilometer-wide stretch should be considered as international waters subject to the “freedom of the high seas” principle of international law, as Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry pointed out on June 14.


For Japan, this is not somebody else’s problem. It is estimated that more than 2,500 Japanese vessels pass through the Taiwan Strait annually, as retired admiral and former Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces (JMSDF) Chief of Staff Tomohisa Takei said in a recently published book on a Taiwan contingency.


Should China control the strait unilaterally, it would negatively affect not only Japan’s maritime trade but also that of Taiwan and South Korea because Chinese control of the strait could disturb the sea traffic lanes.


What can Japan do to cope with yet another one of Beijing’s attempts to unilaterally change the status quo? In my view, it is high time for the Japanese government to start letting JMSDF ships pass through the Taiwan Strait to strengthen international norms and rules.


So far, JMSDF ships have never passed through the Taiwan Strait, mainly because Japan is fearful of China’s strong retaliation. But this is something that Tokyo should consider doing as part of playing a more creative role in the maintenance and strengthening of the rule-based international order.


Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has reiterated his government will never tolerate any attempt to change the status quo by force in violation of international law. So Japan needs to both talk the talk and walk the walk proactively, with a strong sense of being a responsible builder of peace and freedom around the world.


Indeed, Japan should have no reason to hesitate to pass through the strait. For one thing, in recent years, U.S., U.K., French and Canadian warships have already sailed through the strait to promote, maintain and strengthen the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific, thus challenging Beijing’s claims that the Taiwan Strait is not an international waterway.


Rear Admiral Jean-Mathieu Rey, Joint Commander of the French Armed Forces in the Asia-Pacific (ALPACI), said in an interview with me in late March: “My Chinese counterpart said there are so many French warships passing through the Taiwan Strait. Then, I made a rebuttal remark by saying that the strait is an international channel, so there should be no problem, and we will pass through it as many times as needed.” He is right.


Is the JMSDF prepared to do the same as the French navy?


Asked about the future possibility of it, Admiral Ryo Sakai, the newly appointed Chief of Staff of the JMSDF, said at his first press conference on April 7: “Our passage of the Taiwan Strait must be perfectly legal because it is an international waterway. But letting JMSDF ships pass through the strait means we will clearly send out some signals. Whether and when and how we will send that signal is not JMSDF’s decision but the government’s political decision.”


What, then, about the government’s political will to do so? I had a chance to ask this question directly to Kishida at a press conference the following day. “We are neither considering such concrete actions nor planning to do it,” he answered me with a rather cynical smile.


A Chinese information-gathering ship that passed through the Tsugaru Strait, pictured off the coast of Aomori Prefecture on June 16. (Handout photo from Joint Staff Office of Japan’s Ministry of Defense)   © Kyodo

Another consideration is the fact, without constraints, China’s warships have frequently passed through Japan’s five major straits: Miyako, Osumi, Tsushima, Tsugaru and Soya.


Most notably, 10 vessels of the Chinese and Russian navies conducted their first-ever joint patrols in international waters east of Japan in the Western Pacific, passing out of the 20-kilometer-wide Tsugaru Strait located between Japan’s main islands of Honshu and Hokkaido into the Pacific in October last year.


China’s provocative moves are not limited to the oceans. Six Chinese and Russian strategic bombers on May 24 flew near the Japanese archipelago — an apparent bid to warn against the Quad summit, being held the same day, involving the leaders of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S.


While China is fully practicing freedom of navigation around Japan, why should Japan hesitate to exercise the same right of navigation in the waters surrounding China?


If China can pass through Japan’s major straits more often than is necessary, then there is no reason for the JMSDF to refrain from passing through the Taiwan Strait. China should be treated accordingly and equally in response to its own actions. It is about time that the JMSDF exercised its right of navigation in this vitally important waterway.

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