Japan to step up role in South China Sea

New head of defense ministry, whose influence has been growing, says will join training exercises with US in disputed sea

Japan to step up role in South China Sea

World Bulletin / News Desk

Japan’s new defense minister, Tomomi Inada, has injected her country more firmly into the South China Sea controversy during her first visit to Washington as a minister.

“Japan will increase its engagement in the South China Sea, such as, for example, joint training exercises with the U.S. and regional navies,” she declared during a speech delivered earlier this week to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

“I strongly support the U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, which go a long way towards a rules-based international maritime order” she said, adding that bending those rules has “consequences that could become global”.

Besides speaking at the think tank, she conferred with U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter concerning a variety of security issues, such as North Korea’s most recent atomic bomb test and the difficulties of putting into effect the agreement to reduce the American presence on Okinawa island.

While Inada visited Washington, her government won a major court fight, when the high court ruled that Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga’s legal challenge to prevent construction operations to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps station at Futenma was itself illegal.

Her ministry has also accelerated the construction of helipads on a portion of the Northern Training Area that remains in American control.

It would undoubtedly have been a relief for her to be able to tell Carter that Tokyo is making progress on its Okinawa obligations.

Inada was appointed defense minister in an early August cabinet reshuffle.

She is reputed to be very conservative, like her boss, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, particularly on matters of history. She is often mentioned as a possible successor to Abe.

The ministry of defense has grown in influence in recent years as the security atmosphere in Northeast Asia has deteriorated markedly, with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and China’s new assertiveness in the South and East China seas.

Tokyo does not claim any of the disputed reefs and atolls in the Spratly and Paracel island clusters, but it does have and interest in upholding the current maritime order in the South China Sea.

Beijing has been accused of trying to change the rules by its massive land reclamation projects of several reefs and atolls and by its claims to the entire sea, which were ruled unfounded in July by an international tribunal -- whose authority China refuses to accept.

Washington has been urging Japan to become more involved in the South China Sea issues, including joint patrols. Tokyo has demurred over the joint patrols in the past, but the Inada speech might indicate a change in attitude.

Tokyo is giving the Philippines two large patrol craft and lending five patrol aircraft to keep watch over parts of the sea claimed by the long-time U.S. ally. This month the ministry indicated it was willing to supply Vietnam with patrol craft too.

Meanwhile, China and Russia launched Monday an eight-day naval exercise in the South China Sea. Among the stated training objectives is “island seizing”, the naval communique said.

Güncelleme Tarihi: 17 Eylül 2016, 13:08