Japan’s defense minister announced in Washington Thursday that the nation is seeking to participate in joint maritime exercises with the United States in the South China Sea, a direct challenge to China’s repeated demands for Japan to stay out of the region.
Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, visiting the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Thursday, said in a speech that Japan is an enthusiastic supporter of America’s “Freedom of Navigation” exercises in the South China Sea and willing to join American military operations in disputed territory.
“Japan and the United States both share and uphold such universal values as democracy, freedom, the rule of law, and respect for human rights,” she said in a speech. “Japan on its part will increase its engagement in the South China Sea through, for example, Maritime Self-Defense Force joint training cruises with the U.S. Navy, bilateral and multi-lateral exercises with regional navies, as well as providing capacity building assistance to coastal nations.”
Joint U.S.-Japan exercises in the South China Sea would counter current military exercises in the region conducted jointly by China and Russia. The two nations typically engage in annual maritime drills; the ones currently ongoing are considered the biggest yet and are taking place in the South China Sea, off the Chinese coast. They are the first such drills since Russian President Vladimir Putin weighed in on the dispute, stating that Russia supports both China’s claims in the region and Beijing’s refusal to accept the Hague verdict.
On Wednesday, Chinese state media quoted President Xi Jinping as thanking Putin for his steadfast support and boasting of an increasingly robust bilateral relationship with Russia. To China’s tiny neighbors involved in territorial disputes with it, the message is clear: China is not only a dangerous military foe but has the backing of one of the most belligerent and potent political actors in the world.
Joint exercises between Japan and the United States would serve to embolden smaller claimants in the region, implying they would not be alone in containing China.
China claims most of the entire South China Sea, including sovereign territory belonging to Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines. For the past two years, it has been engaging in construction projects in the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal, Philippine and Vietnamese territory. On artificial islands constructed in the Spratly chain, China has placed surface-to-air missiles and advanced surveillance equipment, claiming it is for “civilian” purposes. China has also aggressively removed Vietnamese and Philippine fishermen from fishing waters in their sovereign territory, claiming it to be Chinese.
Inada went on to condemn China’s rejection of July’s Hague ruling finding its claims in the South China Sea invalid, expressing “serious concern” over Beijing’s illegal construction of artificial islands and military facilities in Philippine and Vietnamese territory.
“Coercive attempts to change the facts on the ground and upend the prevailing norms do not serve anybody’s interest. Unfortunately, what China has been doing recently in the East China Sea and South China Sea is just that,” she asserted.
Japan, which has its own territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea, has repeatedly expressed its desire to see China abandon its claims in the South China Sea and accept a verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague finding its claims invalid.
China has done little to give the impression it is willing to work with Japan. State media accused Japan’s “eunuch” diplomats of manipulating the Hague to deliver a verdict against China. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has personally requested that Japan “stop hyping up and interfering in the South China Sea issue” in a meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in July.
Inada nonetheless noted that her country would be willing to engage in extended talks with China to hash out a solution that benefits both parties. Bloomberg notes, however, that she is seen unfavorably by the Chinese communist party, particularly due to her embrace of visiting the Yasukuni shrine, a war memorial that honors Japanese veterans, including some World War II commanders considered war criminals.