Late last month in “South Pacific Showdown? Japan May Send Warships To China Islands,” we documented a meeting between Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and Philippines President Benigno Aquino on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit held in Manila.
The two leaders discussed the possibility that Japan could provide Manila with “large ships” that the Philippines can use to patrol the South China Sea.
This was, of course, a direct response to China, whose land reclamation efforts in the Spratlys have ruffled more than a few feathers in the South Pacific.
“The deal will mark the first time Japan has agreed to directly donate military equipment to another country, and is the latest example of Abe's more muscular security agenda,” Reuters reported on at the time, before adding that “rather than challenge Beijing directly by sending warships or planes to patrol the South China Sea, Japan is helping to build the military capacity of friendly nations with claims to parts of the waterway.”
Despite the contention that Abe has no immediate plans to “directly challenge” the PLA navy, the PM also told Obama that Japan would consider conducting “freedom of navigation” patrols in conjunction with the US around China’s man-made islands.
Recall that Washington has committed to sailing warships by the islands several times per year in a repeat of the pass-by the navy conducted in late October.
As we said last month, “if Japan starts to conduct the same type of exercises near the Spratlys that the US has now pledged to carry out at least twice per quarter, it will be more than Beijing can bear.”
Of course Japan is also at odds with China over the latter’s construction of rigs near a demarcation line that separates the two countries' exclusive economic zones in the East China Sea:
Well, speaking of the East China Sea, Reuters is out reporting that in response to pressure from Washington, Japan is set to "fortify its far-flung island chain in the East China Sea under an evolving strategy that aims to turn the tables on China's navy and keep it from ever dominating the Western Pacific Ocean."
The US believes Japan "must help contain growing Chinese military power" and is pushing Abe "to abandon his country's decades-old bare-bones home island defense in favor of exerting its military power in Asia," Reuters continues. According to "a dozen military planners and government policymakers ... Tokyo is responding by stringing a line of anti-ship, anti-aircraft missile batteries along 200 islands in the East China Sea stretching 1,400 km (870 miles) from the country's mainland toward Taiwan."
Apparently, the deployment will act as a kind of blockade as "Chinese ships sailing from their eastern seaboard must pass through this seamless barrier of Japanese missile batteries to reach the Western Pacific, access to which is vital to Beijing both as a supply line to the rest of the world's oceans and for the projection of its naval power." Recall that from the PLA's surprise appearance at the Yemeni port city of Aden to the Chinese navy's trip to Alaska, Xi is keen on projecting China's growing maritime prowess. The missile battery is an attempt to deter Beijing's ambitions.
The idea is to establish the string of islands stretching through Japan's East China Sea territory and south through the Philippines as a kind of demarcation line separating Beijing's sphere of regional influence from Washington's. "In the next five or six years the first island chain will be crucial in the military balance between China and the U.S.- Japan," said Satoshi Morimoto, a Takushoku University professor who was defense minister in 2012 told Reuters.
This purportedly marks the beginning of a concerted effort to challenge China's attempt to exert complete control over the South and East China Seas (which the US and its allies swear is Beijing's endgame). "The growing influence of China and the relative decline of the U.S. [is] a factor. We wanted to do what we could and help ensure the sustainability of the U.S. forward deployment" Akihisa Nagashima, a DPJ lawmaker says, explaining a shift in Abe's maritime defense strategy that began in 2010.
So, as we anxiously await the (likely angry and invariably indignant) response from Beijing, we'll close with the following rather ominous quote, from an official who spoke to Reuters:
"To be sure, there is nothing to stop Chinese warships from sailing through under international law, but they will have to do so in within the crosshairs of Japanese missiles."