Japan has implemented its own “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea “to warn China,” but in a cautious manner, Japan’s largest newspaper reported.
the Yomiuri Shimbun quoted unnamed government sources as saying that Japanese naval vessels “said at least twice through waters near the artificial islands and reefs claimed by China in the South China Sea” in March and August last year.
“The operations of the Maritime Self-Defense Force (Japanese Navy) began in March 2021 under the administration of then Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga,” it said. Suga resigned in October.
A senior Defense Ministry official told the newspaper that the operations “were intended to warn China, which distorts international law, to protect freedom of navigation and law and order at sea.”
However, while similar to the Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) conducted by the US Navy, the Japanese ships only sailed in international waters and did not enter China’s territorial waters, Yomiuri reported, adding that these operations were “used on occasions such as voyage.” or from joint exercises with other navies or deployments in the Middle East.”
“Territorial waters” are those areas of sea less than 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) from a country’s coast, and China requires foreign warships to seek permission for so-called “innocent passage.”
Japan is a treaty ally of the US, which keeps more than 50,000 troops on Japanese soil. But Mark Valencia, Adjunct Senior Scholar at the China National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS), said, “These are not FONOPs à la the US.”
“They do not question China’s territorial marine regime nor its claims of sovereignty over low-tide features like the Mischief Reef, as US FONOPs do,” he said.
“They are an exercise of freedom on the high seas that China does not oppose.”
The Mischief Reef is one of the features of the South China Sea that China has been developing into artificial islands in recent years, despite protests from some other applicants, including the Philippines and Vietnam.
Beijing also claims territorial waters around these artificial islands, although these claims have no basis in international law.
Commitment to an open sea
Australian Rear Admiral (retd) James Goldrick, a well-known maritime affairs analyst, said many US FONOPs in the South China Sea were about the right of passage of warships without prior notice in self-claimed territorial waters, not only by China but also by China Vietnam and the Philippines.
But the Japanese effort was “more about freedom of naval/naval operations than freedom of navigation” or support for US FONOPs, he said.
“The South China Sea is not a closed sea, nor should it be,” Goldrick said.
Alessio Palatano, a professor at King’s College London and an expert on Japanese naval history and strategy, said the recent operations show: “Japan has exercised its observance of the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in ways it previously very carefully avoided.” ”
“This is a step up that brings Japanese behavior much closer to other major naval powers. The UK and France regularly sail in ways that sometimes challenge excessive forms of maritime pretensions,” Palatano told RFA.
“It is a clear political signal showing that Japan is making good use of its naval capabilities to create a wide range of signaling options to communicate its political disagreements with Chinese behavior.”
“As long as the Japanese continue to be so nuanced, this is very welcome,” he said.
Meanwhile, Valencia, from China’s state-owned think tank NISCSS, warned that although the Japanese operations raised no alarm, “if they do in fact challenge China’s territorial waters regime or claims of sovereignty by encroaching on its claimed territorial waters or violating the regime for peaceful passages, then China might.” it’s good to fight back.”