Media Coverage | June 30, 2017

Japan's Delicate Balancing Act in the South China Sea

Tokyo knows that any acceleration of its moves in the South China Sea will likely be reciprocated by Beijing’s tightening of the screws in the East China Sea, writes EWI Senior Fellow J. Berkshire Miller in the National Interest.

Sino-Japanese relations have long been marred by a maritime and territorial row in the East China Sea as well as a historical dispute over Japan's wartime memory, which has prevented sustainable rapprochement. Further complicating the situation, bilateral ties are now increasingly strained by Japan’s growing presence in the South China Sea, where overlapping territorial and maritime disputes have pitted China against several Southeast Asian neighbors.

At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s most important defense and security summit, Japanese defense minister Tomomi Inada delivered pointed criticisms of China, deploring its attempts to “upend the rules-based order” and “alter the status quo based on assertions incompatible with existing international norms.” While never directly referring to China, Inada’s remarks were some of the most vivid official expressions in recent years of Japan’s concerns regarding China’s foreign policy. The following day, Beijing issued a rebuttal, expressing its “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” to what it deemed “irresponsible remarks.”

The JS Izumo, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force’s largest warship, is currently sailing through the South China Sea for three months, making port calls to Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. The cross-ocean trek comes just as the warship is preparing to take part in a multilateral naval exercise in the Indian Ocean in July, along with India and the United States. Izumo’s itinerary is meant to serve as a sign of Japan’s commitment to its Southeast Asian partners and is a clear response to what it perceives as China’s overbearing approach to the South China Sea. Notably, the trip also comes on the heels of Tokyo’s November 2016 announcement of the so-called Vientiane Vision, which lays out Japan’s plans for increased defense cooperation with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

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