Japan dives into South China Sea flap with China

November 06, 2011

Japan has set sail on a course to woo India and other Asian countries to its proposal to set up a forum for rulemaking on maritime security to counter China's advances in the South China Sea.

However, the Japanese foray is floundering in choppy waters with little international support so far, as well as angering China.

Japan has floated a proposal to establish a maritime security forum at the East Asia Summit (EAS), to be held in Indonesia on Nov. 19, after China's increasing presence in the South China Sea.

Tokyo fears that China's advance will inevitably have a bearing on its territorial dispute with Beijing in the East China Sea over a group of islets, called the Senkaku Islands, or the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese.

The Japanese government has been trying to solicit India and Southeast Asian countries to support its initiative on a rulemaking forum.

On Nov. 2, Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa stressed in a meeting with his Indian counterpart, A.K. Antony, in Tokyo that Japan and India can contribute to the peace and the stability of the Asia-Pacific region by deepening their defense cooperation.

The two chiefs agreed that Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Indian Navy will hold joint drills and reciprocate port calls by their vessels.

The move is part of Japan's efforts to counter China's maritime advance, a key security issue of the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

Noda said in an interview with a British newspaper in late October that uncertainty is emerging in the security environment surrounding Japan, a reference to China's moves in the South China Sea.

If China's argument that islands in the sea are within its jurisdiction, despite a lack of clear basis of international law, gains support in the international community, a key Cabinet member says it will be "certain to affect" Japan's standing regarding the Senkaku Islands.

In an attempt to head off this scenario, the Japanese government announced a proposal to establish an East Asia maritime security forum to be joined by government officials and experts.

It has been lobbying to have three points spelled out in a joint paper to be produced by the EAS: freedom of navigation, observance of international laws and peaceful solution of international disputes.

Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba asked for support for Japan's initiative during a meeting with his Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa, when he visited Indonesia and two other Southeast Asian countries in October.

"We want to discuss a wide range of maritime issues," Genba was quoted as saying, referring to the proposed forum. "It is not our intention to exclude China with the proposal."

The Noda administration is attempting to use the EAS to discuss the issue with China as the EAS framework allows Japan to ally itself with the United States and other Asian nations.

Akihisa Nagashima, special adviser to the prime minister in diplomacy, told a speaking engagement on Nov 1 that Japan is proposing the forum to lead efforts to establish maritime order in Asia.

But Japan has failed to gain much support from other member countries for setting up the new forum.

The United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, members of the EAS, are tilted toward the use of the existing ASEAN maritime security forum as a compromise.

They are supporting the ASEAN forum, sources in the Japanese Foreign Ministry say, after China reacted sharply against Japan's initiative.

While a senior official at the ministry says that Japan expects China to play a constructive role in maritime security rulemaking at the proposed forum, China sees Tokyo's initiative as a move to hit back at it.

A Chinese newspaper characterized the Japanese proposal as trying to compete with China in the South China Sea with its own advance southward.

Noda's scheduled visit to India this year, possibly to discuss questions surrounding the South China Sea, is also rattling China's nerves.

China is becoming nervous about India's moves because India and Vietnam, with which China is at odds over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, are working to jointly develop resources in the ocean.

In addition, China is seeking stable ties with the international community as many members of its leadership will be replaced by the younger generation next year in a transition of power.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has expressed concern, saying that it hopes countries outside the region should only take action that contribute to peace and stability in the South China Sea.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai's tone was a stern one.

"Japan should think comparatively what will truly serve Japan's national interests," he warned.

A journalist in China who is familiar with the Chinese government's foreign policy said that Japan should just remain quiet about issues involving the South China Sea.

"Japan would find it annoying if China got involved in a row between Japan and South Korea over the issue of the Takeshima islets and backs Seoul at an international meeting," the journalist said. "Parties not in the dispute should remain quiet."

(This article was written by Takashi Oshima in Tokyo and Koichi Furuya in Beijing.)

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Chinese Navy vessels are berthed at Hainan Island's Yalong Bay in December 2009. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Chinese Navy vessels are berthed at Hainan Island's Yalong Bay in December 2009. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Chinese Navy vessels are berthed at Hainan Island's Yalong Bay in December 2009. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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