Japan plans to increase its engagement in the South China Sea by conducting joint training patrols with the U.S. Navy and other exercises with regional navies, nudging China’s extensive territorial claims in the region.
Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said during remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., on Thursday that Japan "will increase its engagement in the South China Sea through, for example, Maritime Self-Defense Force joint training cruises with the U.S. Navy, bilateral and multi-lateral exercises with regional navies, as well as providing capacity building assistance to coastal nations."
China’s sovereignty claims over disputed territory in the South China Sea have been a source of deep tension in the region, especially in the wake of an international tribunal ruling that found Beijing’s claims to have no historical or legal basis. China and Japan also both claim sovereignty over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, straining relations between the two countries.
China reportedly warned Japan against sending Self-Defense Forces to join U.S. freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea earlier this year, calling it a "red line."
Inada, who spoke at length about the Japan-U.S. alliance and the security of the Asia-Pacific region on Thursday, criticized China’s behavior in the East and South China Seas as "coercive attempts" to upend the international order in the region.
Inada highlighted China’s reclamation and island-building campaign in the South China Sea, including the construction of "runways, hangars, berthing facilities, and radars" on artificial islands that can serve military purposes.
These actions, in addition to Beijing’s dismissal of the July international tribunal ruling that rejected its territorial claims in the South China Sea, "constitute its deliberate attempt to unilaterally change the status quo, achieve a fait accompli, and undermine the prevailing norms," she said.
Inada also said that Chinese incursions in waters surrounding the Senkakus have become "routinized" in recent years, citing an "unprecedented" incident in which Chinese law enforcement ships and fishing boats sailed into Japanese territorial waters surrounding the islands and made multiple incursions over a period of several days. A surface combatant of the Chinese Navy also entered the area around the islands in June.
"If the world condones coercive attempts to change the rules of the road in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, and allow rule-bending to succeed in their waters and airspace, its consequences could become global, not to be confined in the Western Pacific," she warned.
The Japanese defense minister expressed support for the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation exercises near disputed islands in the South China Sea, which have drawn ire from Beijing. She said that Japan will increase its presence in the South China Sea to enforce international law while at the same time keeping "the door open for constructive dialogue with China."
Leaders of Japan and China agreed last week to work towards creating a communication hotline to prevent accidental military clashes in the South China Sea, Inada noted.
The U.S. Navy welcomed Japan’s willingness to increase cooperation in the region, the service said in a statement published by Reuters.
"The United States welcomes Japan’s interest in expanding its maritime activities in the South China Sea. We continue to explore ways to enhance U.S.-Japan cooperative efforts to contribute to the security and stability of the region," the Navy said.