The Buzz

How America and Japan are Pushing Back Against China in the South China Sea

US & Japan show force together in South China Sea to Counter China; Pentagon officials say satellites have confirmed that the Chinese have placed surface-to-air missiles on island-like structures in the area.

US and Japanese ships have completed a joint show of force in the contested region of the South China Sea in an overt attempt to illustrate allied cooperation and interoperability - and challenge China's aggressive stance in the region, service officials said. 

Earlier this month, ships from the U.S Navy and Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) completed a "passing" exercise, or PASSEX, in the area; this included personnel exchanges, cross-deck flight operations, communications exercises, division tactics, a tracking exercise and photo exercise, according to a statement from the Navy's Destroyer Squadron 7 Public Affairs. 

Participating for the U.S. Navy was the littoral combat ship USS Coronado. Ships participating from Japan included the Izumo-class helicopter destroyer JS Izumo (DDH-183), with embarked Escort Flotilla One Command Element, and the Takanami-class destroyer JS Sazanami (DD-113). Personnel exchanges were conducted through cross-deck helicopter operations utilizing Coronado's embarked MH-60S and the SH-60K Seahawk onboard Izumo.

The three ships conducted precision maneuvering events and communication exercises while underway, both focused on ensuring the two navies are prepared to work together efficiently in future operations, the Navy statement specified. 

"My ship, JS Izumo, the largest ship in the JMSDF, has high capability in support of HA/DR (humanitarian assistance/disaster relief) activities in this region," Capt. Yoshihiro Kai, commanding officer, JS Izumo, said according to a US Navy report. "This bilateral exercise improved our teamwork, tactical skill and readiness."

Although it has now been many months since the US Navy conducted a "freedom of navigation" exercise designed to specifically counter China's territorial assertions in the South China Sea, stepped up US-Japanese presence and collaboration in the area unambiguously sends a "deterrence" or "counter-balance" message to China. 

The PASSEX, therefore, while seemingly routine upon initial observation, is without question taking place in a broader context of continued tension in the South China Sea arising from China's territorial ambitions. China's claims, particularly in the Spratly Island vicinity, are of course known to be vigorously challenged by the US and its many allies in the Pacific. 

In recent years, the Pentagon has sharply criticized Chinese moves to place weapons on dispute island areas of the South China Sea, a move which further complicated U.S.-China tensions in the highly-disputed region.

“Commercial imagery indicates that China has deployed a surface-to-air missile system on a disputed outpost in the South China Sea. We are concerned that these actions are increasing tensions in the region and are counterproductive,” a Pentagon spokesman told Scout Warrior at the time when news of these weapons emerged. 

DoD officials have further explained that continued Chinese actions and territorial claims in the region are not in keeping with international laws, rules and regulations. Further militarizing the region is a source of substantial concern for Pentagon officials.

Surface-to-air missiles, in particular, are of grave concern given their ability to reach aircraft in the vicinity. Also, while there were reports that China was placing artillery weapons on island-like claimed structures a while back, the presence of surface-to-air missiles brings an even more significant threat. 

“We continue to encourage all claimants to clarify their territorial and maritime claims in accordance with international law and to commit to peacefully manage or resolve their disputes, including through the use of peaceful dispute settlement mechanisms, such as arbitration,” the Pentagon official added.

The area is question is a group of highly disputed islands south of China in the South China Sea called the Spratly Islands.  The small islands in the area, some of which are claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan, are rich in resources and of strategic geographical importance in the Pacific region.

Pentagon officials have widely criticized an ongoing Chinese effort to erect artificial structures nearby or on top of its claimed island territories in the Spratly Islands. Called “land reclamation” by the Pentagon, the activity has added more than 2,000 acres to island territories claimed by China. Navy P-8 surveillance planes have captured video footage of China’s land-reclamation activities in the area.

The ongoing “land reclamation” by China in the area appears to be a rather transparent attempt by China to reinforce and bolster extended territorial claims in the South China Sea.

In fact, Pentagon officials have said the Chinese are building airstrips for military operations and placing weapons on the island such as artillery systems. Adding surface-to-air missiles only complicates this equation.

“We call on South China Sea claimants to publicly commit to a reciprocal halt to further land reclamation, construction of new facilities, and new militarization of disputed features,” a Pentagon official familiar with the tensions told Scout Warrior.

U.S. Navy destroyers have sailed within 12 miles of island territory claimed by China in the South China Sea in a clear effort to refute sovereignty claims made by China and assert what the Pentagon calls “Freedom of Navigation” exercises.