Driven by US pivot to Asia, Japan steps in South China Sea disputes
Japan’s Defense Minister, Tomomi Inada, recently remarked that safeguarding the South China Sea is linked with safeguarding the East China Sea, and that Japan should push its so-called ‘rule of law’ worldwide. When Inada first visited the US this September, she claimed that Japan will step up its activities in the contested South China Sea through joint training patrols with the US and bilateral and multilateral exercises with regional navies. When the Tsai Ing-wen administration conducted drills on the Taiping Island, Japanese media were also invited aboard.

Japan has stepped up its activities in the contested South China Sea. Zhu Feng, executive director of the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies, said that China should pay attention to Japan’s repeated interventions and its possible military actions.

China’s South China Sea policy concerning Japan has two facets. First, China acknowledges that Japan has a dependence on South China Sea routes because it has high demand for overseas resources. For Japan, the freedom of navigation in South China Sea is one of the lifelines of its economy. China can understand Japan’s concerns in the area, but the concerns should be expressed in more legitimate and reasonable ways. If China is pressured through military allies and joint patrols, the situation in South China Sea would become even more tense.

Even if sovereignty disputes are going on between China and the US, and Japan still has misconceptions about China’s island-building efforts, it should be made clear that, as the biggest trading country in the world, China must be the most ardent advocate of freedom of navigation.

Chinese academicians generally believe that China, the US and Japan have common interests in South China Sea. The freedom of navigation is a basic issue of general concern. In the history of international relations, one country would not limit the other’s freedom of navigation, unless they are antagonistic to each other.

About Japan’s South China Sea policy, China is concerned about three aspects. First, whether the Japanese military would use the current tensions to make it legitimate to expand its role regionally; second, would Japan use the common concerns in South China Sea to strengthen presence of its maritime self-defense forces overseas; third, would Japan use South China Sea disputes to advocate Abe’s ‘positive peace’ and intensify its diplomacy. If Japan’s policy is to use the South China Sea disputes instead of easing the situation, China naturally would fight against it.

At present, the Japanese policy is no different from the US policy toward the South China Sea issue, which exerts huge pressure on China. The US pivot to Asia has expanded Japan’s role. Now, China and Japan are fighting even more fiercely over the contested waters.

China cares about Japan’s concerns, so the two countries are in a position to communicate and negotiate. But China should also warn Japan not to take advantage of the South China Sea disputes which would complicate the situation. In the future, all the three countries - China, Japan and the US - should have more dialogue and discuss the security of western Pacific. Military cooperation among the three countries would be of utmost significance.

The article is based on an interview with Zhu Feng, executive director of the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies, and translated by Rebecca Lin. Opinions expressed in the article don't represent those of the Sino-US.com. 

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