Recognizing the gravity of the deepening crisis in the South China Sea, the world’s leading western powers have begun to speak out. During their latest summit in Germany, the Group of Seven (G7) leaders underlined the “importance of peaceful dispute settlement as well as free and unimpeded lawful use of the world's oceans,” and expressed how they “strongly oppose the use of intimidation, coercion or force, as well as any unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo, such as large-scale land reclamation [author’s own emphasis].” Obviously, it was too diplomatically provocative to explicitly name China, but it was pretty clear which country the Western leaders had in mind.
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Over the past eighteen months alone, China has reclaimed 810 hectares on a whole host of dispute reefs and rocks, which, in the words of U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, is "more than all other claimants’ [construction activities] combined...and more than in the entire history of the region.” Just a few months ago, America’s leading European allies broke the siege on and joined as founding members of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), leaving the Obama administration in embarrassing isolation. But the profound strategic implications of China’s mind-boggling construction activities across disputed waters, which may eventually impact freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most important waterways, is beginning to dawn on the horizons of geographically distant Western powers.
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For long, European powerhouse Germany, which has enjoyed robust trade and investment relations with China, adopted a pragmatic position of neutrality on Beijing’s destabilizing actions in adjacent waters. China, after all, is among a select number of countries that has a strategic partnership with Germany. And it was exports to China that primarily kept Germany out of the recessionary whirlpool during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and the subsequent sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and its increasingly overt interference in the civil war in eastern Ukraine, Germany has been compelled to adopt progressively more forceful language on international security issues. Germany is gradually joining the rank of Gestaltungsmächte (shaping powers) to bring about a semblance of Ordnung (orderliness) in the global hotspots.
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Among the G7 powers, it is Japan, however, that is most directly affected by China’s maritime assertiveness. Tokyo is not only locked in a bitter territorial dispute with Beijing in the East China Sea, but is also deeply alarmed by the prospects of de facto Chinese domination of the South China Sea, where the bulk of Japan’s energy imports pass through. Eager to seize the strategic initiative, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan’s most charismatic leader since Junichiro Koizumi, has directly reached out to like-minded claimant states such the Philippines, which is in the midst of taking the unprecedented decision to grant Japanese Self Defense Forces access to its military bases. Japan’s prospective entry into the South China Sea theatre represents a potentially game-changing development, overhauling the whole architecture of Tokyo’s postwar foreign policy.
Winter is Coming
The United States and its allies are concerned over the prospects of a Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), which may allow Beijing to dominate the seascape and airspace in the South China Sea—and gradually drive other claimant states out of the area. The Chinese Foreign Ministry as well as the deputy chief of the General Staff Department of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), Admiral Sun Jianguo, have openly expressed China’s openness to imposing an ADIZ in the South China Sea. China’s latest white paper, which underlines the PLA’s commitment to “offshore waters defense and open seas protection,” has only deepened the sense of alarm in the region.
In fact, as early as 2004, the PLA’s navy and air force were tasked to achieve necessary “capabilities for winning both command of the sea and command of the air,” while in 2006 the PLA Air force declared its aim “at speeding up its transition from territorial air defense to both offensive and defensive operations….” China’s latest white paper places a premium on “winning informationized local wars, highlighting maritime military struggle and maritime PMS [preparation for military struggles],” with the PLA making the following threat: “we will surely counterattack if attacked.” (See James Holmes excellent analysis of China’s “active defense” doctrine here).
So far, the United States has confined its freedom of navigation operations to the outer limits of the twelve nautical mile radius around China’s artificially-built islands in the Spratlys. Any attempt at pushing the envelope and breaking into the twelve nautical miles territorial sea of Chinese-controlled features could trigger a forceful response by Beijing, which has begun deploying mobile artillery pieces and other advanced assets into its sprawling facilities in the South China Sea.
With little signs of compromise on the horizon, the Philippines and Japan, two of America’s closest allies, have stepped up their security cooperation. Shortly after the conclusion of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, which saw spirited exchanges between Washington and China, Philippine President Benigno Aquino embarked on a four-day state visit to Tokyo, hoping to rally greater international support against China. Aquino’s visit to Japan was of great strategic importance to both countries. Aquino needs Japan’s military muscle, while Abe needs the Philippines’ diplomatic support.
The blossoming of the Philippine-Japan strategic relationship has coincided with the uptick in maritime disputes in the Western Pacific. Since 2011, as Beijing intensified its para-military deployments to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, Tokyo has stepped up its security ties with like-minded Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, which have been resisting China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea.
Though it was the (center-left) Democratic Party of Japan leadership that signed a strategic partnership with the Philippines, the succeeding right-wing Liberal Democratic Party, under the leadership of Shinzo Abe, is primarily responsible for a concerted effort to transform Japan’s security relations with the Philippines and other like-minded countries in the region.
As a proponent of “proactive pacifism,” Abe has eagerly sought to ease decades-long restrictions on Tokyo’s ability to project force beyond its immediate waters. Under the principle of “collective security,” Japanese Self Defense Forces are expected to expand their perimeter of operations and assist allies, particularly the United States, across Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) such as the South China Sea.
In a direct statement of support for the Philippines, Abe has reiterated that Japan shares “serious concern about large-scale [Chinese] land reclamation and that we oppose any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo.” Operationally speaking, Japan needs access to overseas bases if it seeks to conduct patrols in international waters. But Abe’s attempts to carve out a new regional security role for Japan have also faced political opposition both at home and abroad. Progressive groups at home as well as in neighboring countries, particularly China and South Korea (but to a certain degree even Singapore), have expressed concerns over the potential erosion of Japan’s postwar pacifism. This year is particularly sensitive, since it marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, with China and South Korea expected to undertake large-scale events commemorating the defeat of Imperial Japan. Amid the intensified “memory wars” in Asia, Aquino’s visit to Tokyo presented a rare opportunity for Abe to add legitimacy to his attempts for revamping Japan’s post-war foreign policy.
As the representative of a country that was among the biggest victims of Imperial Japanese aggression during World War II, Aquino, speaking before the joint session of the Japanese Parliament (Diet), openly expressed his support for a greater Japanese role in the region, emphasizing the common destiny and threats confronting by the two countries: “The prosperity of maritime and coastal East and Southeast Asia, which relies greatly on the free movement of goods and peoples, is at risk of being disrupted” by China’s aggressive behavior in the Western Pacific. Pushing back against claims of alleged Japanese militarization, Aquino tried to instead portray China as the regional aggressor and called for more a vigorous response from Japan and other powers. Aquino (once again) provoked uproar in China, when he controversially implied that Beijing’s territorial assertiveness resembled that of Nazi Germany.
The two countries also discussed more concrete areas of security cooperation. Japan is considering the export of advanced defense assets such as P-3C anti-submarine reconnaissance aircrafts and radar technology to the Philippines. Under a $150 million deal, thanks to a Japanese soft loan, Tokyo is expected to deliver ten multi-role patrol vessels to the Philippine Coast Guard. As the Philippines’ largest source of Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), Japan has been assisting its Southeast Asian partner to achieve greater domain awareness and develop a minimum deterrence capability in the South China Sea.
Crucially, the Philippines has expressed its openness to a bilateral Visiting Force Agreement with Japan, allowing the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces to refuel and resupply in an event of joint patrols with the United States in the South China Sea. Obviously, with Aquino entering his twilight months in office, he may not have enough time and political capital to get the Philippine Senate to ratify any such deal. Not to mention, the Philippine-U.S. Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) is in a legal limbo, awaiting clearance by the Philippine Supreme Court, which has ruled against the establishment of permanent American bases on Philippine soil.
Nevertheless, it is clear that China’s territorial assertiveness has facilitated greater strategic ties among countries on its peripheries, as Japan, the Philippines and other like-minded countries gradually form a counter-alliance in Western Pacific.
Richard Javad Heydarian is an Assistant Professor in international affairs and political science at De La Salle University, and previously served as a policy advisor at the Philippine House of Representatives. As a specialist on Asian geopolitics and economic affairs, he has written for or interviewed by Al Jazeera, Asia Times, BBC, Bloomberg, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, The Diplomat, The Financial Times, and USA TODAY, among other leading international publications. He is the author of How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings (Zed, London), and the forthcoming book Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific (Zed, 2015). You can follow him on Twitter: @Richeydarian.
Image: Flickr/U.S. Pacific Fleet