Japan pursues ‘freedom of navigation’ to deter China

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Since last spring, Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers have repeatedly sailed through waters near the artificial islands and reefs claimed by China in the South China Sea, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned.

Japan is seeking to put the brakes on China’s attempts to unilaterally change the status quo, in a manner similar to the “freedom of navigation” operations in the area by the United States. China has been ramping up its activities in the waters around Japan, including the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture.

According to government sources, the MSDF operations started in March 2021 under the administration of then Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. A MSDF destroyer sailed in international waters of the southern South China Sea, around the Spratly Islands, which is claimed by countries including China, Vietnam and the Philippines.

The area of navigation was outside what China claims as its “territorial waters,” and within the contiguous zone, which is 12 to 24 nautical miles, or 22 to 44 kilometers, from the coast.

The operation was reported to Suga at a meeting of the Japanese government’s National Security Council, according to the sources.

In August 2021, another destroyer conducted a similar operation and likewise did not enter China’s self-claimed territorial waters. These operations were conducted on such occasions as traveling to or from joint drills with other navies, or deployment to the Middle East.

The South China Sea is an important sea lane for the transportation of oil and other resources, and an essential route for the U.S. military to deploy to the Indian Ocean and the Middle East. Since 2014, China has been turning reefs in the Spratly Islands into artificial islands and unilaterally asserting its interests.

China has also been turning the islands into military footholds, through such measures as building a 3,000-meter airstrip.

The U.S. military has been carrying out “freedom of navigation” patrols in waters where it believes excessive maritime claims are being made by coastal nations, to safeguard the right and freedom of navigation in the open sea as guaranteed by international laws.

In a one-year period from October 2019 to September 2020, the U.S. military used its patrols to challenge such claims by 19 countries and regions, according to the U.S. Defense Department. The U.S. military has been conducting such operations in the South China Sea mainly since 2015, sailing through China’s self-claimed territorial waters near the artificial islands that China is building into military footholds.

Regarding the MSDF’s operations around the Spratly Islands, a Japanese government official said, “It’s in international waters, and there is no problem at all.”

A senior Defense Ministry official said, “It’s meant to warn China, which is distorting international law, to protect freedom of navigation, and the law and order of the sea.”

The Japanese government has expressed its support for the U.S. freedom of navigation program, but has not participated due to concern over creating friction with neighboring countries.

However, China’s incursions into Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands have become a regular occurrence, with incursions recorded in the contiguous zone on 332 days in the year 2021 alone. China has been preparing domestic laws for its maritime expansion, including the coast guard law enacted in February 2021, which authorizes the China Coast Guard to use weapons.