Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Dealing with China's Maritime Hegemony – Japan's Response
TOMODA Seki / Former Director, Japan Institute of International Affairs

June 1, 2014
There has been a marked escalation in China's hardline stance of seeking effective control over a region in the South China Sea also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines. The situation in the South China Sea sends out a sharp warning for Japan, whose claim over the Senkaku Islands is being challenged by China in the East China Sea.

China embarked on its pursuit for maritime hegemony in the 1980s, and has since sought to steadily reinforce this strategy. So why is it stepping up the pressure now? The biggest reason is that its strategy has entered a new phase in which China will seek to shape an "inland sea" out of the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

In 1992, China enacted a territorial water law that defined the land and waters that lie within the "First Island Chain" enclosing the South China Sea and East China Sea as its territory. In recent years, China has upgraded the significance of this area by including it in its "core interests," and has launched a serious effort to establish control. Its latest moves of constructing an oil-rigging platform in the Paracel Islands and building an airstrip by reclaiming the reef in the Spratly islands can be seen as part of its efforts to secure more bases under its control so as to establish its command of the seas.

China may also seek to turn the East China Sea including the Senkaku Islands into an inland sea in the foreseeable future. To prepare for such a possibility, Japan should respond in the following two ways.

First, as a general response, Japan must develop a deterrent against China's demands for maritime hegemony. Specifically, we should strengthen our collaboration and cooperation with Vietnam and the Philippines, which are facing up to China in their respective territorial disputes in the South China Sea. We should also develop closer ties with other ASEAN countries to counter China's strategy of disrupting ASEAN as a group. And it will be important for Japan to lobby the United States to further solidify its return to Asia. A powerful presence exerted by the United States, both in military and political terms, presents the greatest obstacle to China's expansionary ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region.

Second, as a pinpoint approach for the Senkaku Islands, Japan must be prepared for possible Chinese action aimed at establishing effective control. The United States has confirmed at the Presidential level that the terms of the Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands. It is therefore unlikely that China will mobilize its regular military forces in an outright invasion. Instead, it might seek to occupy the islands by sending an irregular troop of soldiers disguised as fishermen. The Japanese government has begun preparing legislative changes that will enable the use of the Self Defense Forces to deal with such a contingency, which currently falls into the "grey zone" between wartime and peacetime activity. Recent developments in the South China Sea highlight the need for a speedy resolution of the legal issues.

And in doing so, it is important not to underestimate the vigor of China's quest for maritime hegemony. Ever since the communist party rose to power in 1949, China’s foreign policy had been dictated by a defensive approach of responding to the external threats posed initially by the United States and eventually by the Soviet Union. However, the threat from the North disintegrated with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, just as China began to enjoy phenomenal economic growth. These two factors have completely transformed China's stance on foreign strategy from a defensive approach of "responding to external threats" to an offensive approach of "expanding its influence." It is no coincidence that the territorial water law - symbolic of an "expansionary" approach - was established in 1992, the year following the demise of the Soviet Union. Several years ago, top Chinese leader Xi Jinping began emphasizing the "great revival of the Chinese nation," which should also be understood within the same context.

On the one hand, China is currently signaling its willingness to coexist with the United States by calling for the development of a "new type of major-power relationship." Yet, on the other hand, it does not hide its desire to change the post-World War II order led by the United States. We should also note that China's proposal for coexistence may well be a tactical move inspired by Deng Xiaoping’s maxim of "keeping a low profile while developing strength." In any case, we must remember that China's hardline stance on the South China Sea issue is built upon the historic turning point that transformed its approach towards foreign policy from defense to offense.

Seki Tomoda is the former Director of the Japan Institute for International Affairs.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

友田 錫 / 元日本国際問題研究所長  

2014年 6月 1日








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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Dealing with China's Maritime Hegemony – Japan's Response