Reuters is reporting that Japan is sending a submarine to the Philippines as part of a Maritime Self-Defense Force fleet visit to the region, in a clear indication Japan is ready to challenge China’s claims in the South China Sea.
An anonymous Japanese official confirmed the visit to Reuters, and asserted that the submarine’s presence is intended to alert China to Japan’s interest in participating in international efforts to curb the nation’s militarization efforts in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, which China claims to be exclusively theirs.
“It sends a message. It is important for Japan to show its presence,” Reuters quotes the source as saying, noting that the fleet will reach Subic Bay, a disputed territory, before traveling to Vietnam later. It is the first time in 15 years that a Japanese submarine sails in the region.
Reuters confirmed with a spokesman for the Philippine military that the submarine will visit the region. What it will do during its voyage in April remains to be planned out.
The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported last week, before the Reuters story confirmed the submarine’s visit, that the fleet of destroyers traveling to both the Philippines and Vietnam, who contest China’s claims in the region, is a “clear sign that the port call also has China in mind.” China has claimed most of the South China Sea, territories contested by the aforementioned Philippines and Vietnam as well as Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. Beijing has used Taiwan’s claims to bolster its own, as it does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation. On Vietnamese and Philippine territory, China has constructed military facilities equipped with advanced radar systems, fighter jets, and surface-to-air missiles.
While Japan has no claims in the South China Sea, China has claimed sovereignty over Japanese islands in the East China Sea–namely, the uninhabited but resource-rich Senkaku Islands.
“We have our hands full dealing with the East China Sea, including the Senkaku Islands, so it is unrealistic to talk about full-scale patrol and monitoring operations in the South China Sea,” a source identified by Asahi as a “high-ranking MSDF officer” confirmed to the newspaper.
In addition to the Japanese visit, Tokyo has signed an agreement with the Philippines which will allow Japan to sell advanced military equipment to Manila. Officials still need to confirm what specific equipment they will trade for, with one Philippine official asserting that “nothing is final,” but reports indicate that surveillance aircraft top the list of items the Philippines is seeking to purchase. These would allow Manila to keep a closer eye on Chinese activities in the region.
The United States is actively seeking further Japanese involvement in the South China Sea dispute, among other allied countries. “Exercising together will lead to operating together. By being ambitious, India, Japan, Australia and the United States and so many like-minded nations can aspire to patrol together anywhere international law allows,” Admiral Harry Harris, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, said in a statement last week, urging the nations to engage in freedom of navigation exercises in disputed territory together.
Japan’s activity in the region has alarmed China so much that Chinese state media has taken to comparing the United States favorably to Japan. The state-run Global Times newspaper ran a column Tuesday claiming that “Tokyo infuriates Beijing,” and that the United States, while still not acknowledging China’s illegal claims in the region, has approached the situation better than Japan has. “Japan’s meddling in the South China Sea issue lacks the good foundation and flexible techniques which the US uses in its policy toward China,” the article contends, noting that America maintains frequent contact with Chinese leaders, while “such contact is very thin between China and Japan politically and militarily.”
In a press conference Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called Japan’s government “two-faced,” and accused the nation of working to “create troubles for China at every turn.”