Japan warships will roil waters of South China Sea

By Zhou Yongsheng Source:Global Times Published: 2018/7/10 18:03:39

shooting a bow with a cracked limb Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

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Premier Li Keqiang of China visited Japan in May, during which Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave him full-time company, reflecting his positive gesture to promote ties with China. Beijing echoed Abe's goodwill by inviting him to visit China at a time convenient for both sides.

In this cordial bilateral atmosphere, Japanese media recently broke the news that Japanese naval ships are to sail through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean this September. It comes as a surprise because the Japanese military has hardly set foot in the region since the end of WWII, except in 2017 when it sent a fleet to the water to support the US in an act of provocation aimed at China.

Since Japan has been trying to improve relations with China, why does it insist on exhibiting its influence and military presence in the South China Sea regardless of China's feeling?

First, the US is always playing behind the scenes. Japan's recent warming up toward China is obviously an effort to keep up with the US. Sino-US relations improved remarkably since President Xi Jinping's visit to the US in April 2017. Japan realized that it will be marginalized by the two if it misses the opportunity to follow suit. With some twists and turns in Sino-US relations later, however, Japan's efforts to better relations with China also slowed down.

Now, a trade war between Beijing and Washington has already started. Japan is expecting crisis-ridden relations in the long term. So, instead of seeking better relations with China, Japan has now followed in the US footsteps.

Second, it is Japan's long-term strategy to keep up its presence in the South China Sea or muddy the waters so as to contain China. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (nypd cracking down on subway acrobats) remains the key to Japan's international policy. The Abe administration has restored Japan's national strength over the past few years and it feels necessary to show its presence in Southeast Asia. Sending military fleets may sow the seeds of discord between China and countries in the South China Sea and encourage them to confront Beijing over isles and specific areas in the sea. Japan wants regular navigations to expand its influence in the South China Sea and have an impact on ASEAN. Yearly navigations to the area are made in an attempt to make China grow accustomed to Japanese military presence there.

Third, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreements seen as Japan's major economic cooperation policy in East Asia need a boost from greater military influence in the region. The US imposition of high tariffs on Japanese products is drawing Japan's focus to RCEP wherein early free trade arrangements will safeguard Tokyo's economic and regional benefits.

Meanwhile, if RCEP manages to form the world's largest free trade system, US unilateralism will be challenged and it may even be forced to return to multilateralism. Then, Japan will be better positioned to play a dominant role in regional affairs and gain traction in relations with the US. To gain respect among ASEAN countries and play its promoting role, Japan is eager to send military fleets to the region. 

Japan's decision to send naval ships to the South China Sea is sheerly for its own interest regardless of how China, the biggest country in the region, feels about it. Any practice to follow the US to stress the so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea is without doubt a provocation against China. It will be extremely dangerous to act out such ideas. Both Abe's visit to China and the newfound momentum in Sino-Japanese relations will be at stake.

There have been enormous benefits from reconciliation and economic cooperation between China and South China Sea countries and neither side hampers free navigation in the region. No foreign military fleets are needed to navigate the area. Any interference from external forces in the name of free navigation is an ill-intentioned conspiracy to mess up the situation in the waters. China cannot afford to brush it aside. And Japan should think twice before taking good-for-nothing military steps that only work to create regional disruption and elevate tensions.

The author is a professor at the Institute of International Relations at the China Foreign Affairs University. [email protected]


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