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Tokyo To Challenge China on Fiery Cross Reef

July 19, 2015 (Photo Credit: AFP/Getty)

TOKYO — In what may turn out to be the first step in a dangerous game of chicken, Japan's upcoming annual defense white paper will accuse China of belligerency in its dealings with neighbors as it becomes clear that China is laying the foundations of a military base on Fiery Cross Reef, one of seven artificial islands China has created in the disputed Spratly Islands.

In the outline of the white paper, to be released in late July, on top of the usual statements citing North Korea's nuclear and missile development as issues of concern, the paper will directly call China's reclamation work on the Spratlys, "high handed." 

In the last 18 months, China has added about 800 hectares to seven reefs in the area, including an airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef, along with the makings of a military radar base. All of this is seen as a significant escalation in a dispute over the islands, part of a huge swath of territory in the South China Sea (SCS) over which China claims undisputed sovereignty.

While the Fiery Cross Reef development has been condemned by the US, Japan's accusation raises the ante and more directly challenges perceived Chinese expansionism, supporting the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam in their dispute over China's claims on the islands.

Japan's assertiveness is relatively new and bold, and comes just as the Japanese Diet this month is passing legislation that will enable the country to engage in collective self-defense (CSD) for the first time in its postwar history. The statement also builds on an assertion made in last year's defense white paper that accused China of attempting to change the status quo in the region through force.

Japan's latest assertion led to predictably robust responses from Beijing, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying accusing Japan of trying to "smear China to create tensions in the region."

"The Chinese construction on the reefs has nothing to do with Japan's security situation. Japan is neither a claimer state or a nearby country in the South China Sea area. It's deliberate show of unnecessary worrying shows that Japan wants to be involved in the SCS affair," said Zhuang Jianzhong, vice director of the Center for National Strategy Studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

"China's reconstruction on the reefs has its historic and current need for various purposes and Japan has no right to criticize others while Japan deploys warships and increases patrolling radius over SCS areas to show its ambitious aim. History will show that China will be non-aggressive and no threat to other Asian countries while it will remain firm in defending its sovereignty and legitimate right," he said.

"Basically, this does affect Japan," said Robert Dujarrac, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan.

"Japan relies on the US for its defense; PRC has challenged the territorial status quo in East China Sea, now pushing the boundaries in SCS. It is a US-China issue but Japan is part of the US equation, so it cannot always stand aside. Moreover, Japan's comments and potential activities in the SCS have been very low key until now," he said

Behind the tit-for-tat, Japan's direct approach probably signifies a deeper shift in Japanese perceptions, attitudes and responses to its position in Asia, analysts said.

"My sense is there has been a tangible surge in Japanese interest and activity in the South China Sea in recent months," said Jeff Smith, director of Asian Security Programs at the American Foreign Policy Council.

This new assertiveness is being backed up by clearer signaling that the Japan Self-Defense Force (SDF) is ready to fight. The SDF has become much more active in the region. For example, the SDF will participate in joint drills with the US and Australia on Australian soil for the first time later this year, and Japan will participate in US-India Malabar exercises this year.

In addition, Japan and the Philippines are reportedly negotiating a deal granting the SDF access to Philippine military bases, and Tokyo appears to be considering a proposal to join the United States in surveillance patrols in the SCS.

On the defense front, Tokyo is negotiating to sell submarines to Australia and Shinmaywa amphibious planes to India.

"These [moves] all strike me as very bold and very significant changes to a Japanese foreign policy that appears to be going all-in on a hedging strategy toward China," Smith said.

Since many other countries, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, have far more to worry about than Japan, the new assertiveness may signal that Japan is more interested in showing itself as a reliable ally in the region, Smith said.

"I think at this point, Tokyo is less interested in improving ties with Beijing than fostering deeper strategic collaboration with the United States and with other countries in the South China Sea to hedge against China. For better or worse, [Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe seems to have concluded that diplomacy is unlikely to resolve the most potent disagreements [like the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute], and that this rising tide of Chinese assertiveness is a long-term, secular trend, rather than a temporary trend that can be mitigated by diplomacy," Smith said.

Japan seems increasingly willing to signal its support to other regional actors and their positions on the South China Sea.

"This is important not just because Japan has a direct interest in preventing China from gaining a monopoly over the South China Sea, but perhaps Tokyo assumes this will also make others more likely to support its own position on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands if and when tensions flare there or just more broadly for the legitimacy reasons in the international court of public opinion."

Jun Okumura, visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, said Japan's actions were part of a "new normal" attitude being adopted by Japan in the face of the reality of its security dilemmas. China as a rising power is looking to flex its muscles, and Japan as an announced preserver of the status quo, is, likewise, behaving normally in calling China on this, he said

"There is a school of thought that you have to speak up in the war of words with China in order to be taken seriously. You know what would be really escalatory? Regular patrols in the South China Sea. More visits by Japanese naval vessels and more joint exercises will no doubt be annoying to the Chinese authorities, but that will not lead to anything serious," Okumura said.

"If Japan has chosen to insert new language of China being 'belligerent' in the defense white paper then it is quite a step up in language from the previous, more guarded cause for 'concern' type of expressions in the past about Chinese military movements," said Christopher Hughes, professor of international politics and Japanese studies at the UK's University of Warwick.

"Overall, this would seem to be another registration of Japanese interest in the South China Sea, demonstrated most recently by the JSDF's participation in exercises with the Philippines military. Japan's security interests clearly extend to the South China Sea and this may be a region that Japan could become drawn into under a collective self-defense type scenario to support the US efforts to preserve the freedom of navigation and thus Japan's own security," Hughes said.

Wendell Minnick contributed to this report from Taipei.


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