By Dr Subhash Kapila
China’s forcible annexation of virtually the entire maritime expanse and consequent militarisation of the South China Sea in the last decade has generated grave regional and global complications. Japan as an Asian power contender with China and the nation whose strategic and economic survival is critically dependent on the sea-lanes that traverse the South China Sea gets logically drawn into South China Sea conflictual dynamics.
Historically, few would remember that since Japan’s economic survival is dependent on the sea-lanes of commerce that run through the South China Sea, Japan in the run-up to World War II had occupied Hainan Island and the Paracel Islands which today constitute the anchors of China’s ‘Full-Spectrum Domination of the South China Sea along with the Spratlys and other islands seized from Vietnam and the Philippines. Japan had to relinquish control over these Islands on its defeat in World War II.
Japan currently has a daunting strategic challenge to ensure that China with its forcible annexation of the South China Sea and its feebly challenged domination so far by the United States, is not in a position to politically and strategically coerce Japan by the blackmail of China’s ability to choke Japan’s lifelines traversing the South China Sea.
Short of war, Japan has put in place a series of diplomatic, strategic and economic strategies to offset any possible Chinese military adventurism to prevent or impede unhindered, free and open navigation of this vast international maritime expanse of the South China Sea.
In the diplomatic domains, Japan in the last decade along with Vietnam has thrust into international consciousness the conflictual contours that China has added to the South China Sea disputes with multiple countries of the region and transforming the South China Sea into a global flashpoint. Japan has been able to diplomatically awaken Asian countries’ consciousness to the China Threat in the making and which has all the potential of endangering peace and stability in the wider Indo Pacific region.
The strategic bonding of Japan with the other Asian Power, India, also in contention with China directly flows from Japan and India’s strategic convergence on the potency of the China Threat to Indo Pacific security. South China Sea military adventurism of China is one of the major combustible flashpoint of all the flashpoints that China has generated on its peripheries.
The point that needs to be made contextually here is that China has initiated a two-prong strategy which dominates its imperialistic instincts in virtual annexation of the South China Sea. The regional prong is aimed at Japan by attempting to acquire strong coercive leverages with the Damocles Sword of choking Japan’s lifelines through the South China Sea.
The second and more significant prong of Chinese strategy with its current virtual annexation of the South China Sea is to throw the gauntlet against United States geopolitical preponderance in the Indo Pacific and prompting an United States exit from the Western Pacific and US Forward Military Presence pivotally in place in Japan.
Thus there is an inevitable imperative for the United States and Japan to complement, integrate and synchronise joint efforts to ensure that China by its dominance is not able to convert the South China Sea into an ‘Inland Sea of China’. This inevitability forms a major part of Japan’s diplomatic thrusts to keep the United States anchored in Western Pacific in addition to Indo Pacific as a whole.
Japan has diplomatically succeeded in drawing France and Britain to declare their stakes in keeping the international expanse of the South China Sea free and open. This was analysed in one of my recent SAAG Papers. France and Britain have committed themselves to send naval patrols in the South China Sea. This is a welcome expression of solidarity with Japan’s efforts against unquestioned control over the South China Sea and a snub to China’s assertions of exercising full sovereignty over the disputed maritime expanse.
South East Asia forms an important component of Japan’s diplomatic strategy related to South China Sea. In fact Japan’s special attention to ASEAN countires pre-date China making the South China Sea combustible. Within ASEAN, Japan has devoted special attention to Vietnam whose littoral virtually dominates the major length of the South China Sea. Japan is engaged in capacity building of Vietnam both in the military and economic fields. A strong Anti-Chines sentiment in Vietnamese people’s minds is a plus point for Japan.
Strategically, Japan is conscious that Japan by itself is unable to tame China’s hegemonistic instincts in Asia and the South China Sea. Japan therefore needs a countervailing power on its side to meet the China Threat to Japan’s security and the security of the South China Sea. It is here that the United States for decades after 1945 has played the role of a deterrent power first against the Former Soviet Union and now against China’s military adventurism.
The United States has underwritten Japan’s security uninterruptedly ever since 1945 and can be expected to do so more significantly in the coming years as China becomes more adversarial against the United States.
Japan’s strategic dependence on the United States is not amorphous like India’s strategic partnership with the United States. Japan and the United States are firmly bound in their half a century old Mutual Security Treaty. This Treaty incorporates joint strategic planning, integrated contingency operational plans and ’Guidelines’ for effective continuance of their military relationship and for combatting any threats to Japan’s security.
Japan has been well-served by its nurturing of its special military relationship with the United States and that provides a strong deterrent factor in play in favour of Japan’s security against regional threats. It was in evidence when China raised the stakes against Japan in the Senkaku Islands dispute and military standoff. Japan prevailed over the United States that Article V of their Treaty obliged the United States to militarily aid Japan against any aggression by China in the Senkaku Islands.
Japan with its latest Helicopter Carriers and Destroyers of the Japanese Navy has been traversing the South China Sea on their goodwill missions to South East Asia and the Indian Ocean. This also ensures that in a silent and subtle way Japan is engaged in a subtle naval presence in the South China Sea complementing US Navy FONOPS naval patrols in the South China Sea. China has severely criticised and warned Japan against such naval activities.
In the military domain one also finds evidence of India also as part of its Act East policy expressing that it also has vital stakes in the South China Sea. Complementing the Japanese naval effort, Indian Navy Flotillas regularly traverse the South China Sea on their goodwill missions to East Asia and also Joint Naval Exercises like RIMPAC with the US Navy and Japanese. Navy in the Western Pacific
South Korea is equally affected by China’s virtual annexation of the South China Sea as its lifelines also traverse this maritime expanse. Oblivious to this strategic reality, South Korea ha ignored Japan’s efforts for diplomatic and military coordination. South Korea believes that its open accommodative stances towards China would ensue that South Korea is not choked by China.
In the economic domains Japan for decades has been engaged in exploring alternative sources of raw materials and energy supplies from South American countries and largely Australia thereby reducing sole dependence on South China Sea lifelines. Within Japan a lot of money and effort is devoted to invent alternative sources of energy.
One can hazard a guess that in the eventuality of China choking Japan’s lifelines through the South China Sea, China could possibly invite international naval intervention to ensure unimpeded navigation through the South China Sea by all nations and not left to China’s selective whims.
Another reassurance that possibly hovers over Japan and its confidence to withstand any Chinese coercion in the South China Sea is United States over-riding strategic stakes in the South China Sea in relation to its global supremacy. The United States Navy’s operational switching of its Naval Fleets between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean have to traverse the South China Sea. The United States so far weighed down by Risk Aversion policies may not be that tolerant when push comes to shove and the United States resorts to militany naval might to ensure that passages through the South China Sea are not blocked or impeded by China.
In such an eventuality China may by blocking the international waterways through the South China Sea may end up as itself being subjected to a naval blockade by the United States along with its strategic partners and allies.
Concluding, it needs to be stressed that Japan is not a push-over nation which China can contemptuously trifle with in its larger power tussle with the United States over the mastery of the Western Pacific. Japan would not be found standing alone should China attempt to isolate it or choke it through its virtual annexation of the South China Sea. Japan is incrementally building up its military capacities and Japan has the most powerful Navy in Asia with long martial traditions as back-up which will come into full play should China provoke Japan.
China may eventually by its adversarial actions push Japan ito nuclear weaponisation which is well within its grasp.