South China Sea Options: An Alternative Route

South China Sea Options: An Alternative Route
AP Photo/Bullit Marquez, File

“The Black Swan” is an officer and a strategist in the U.S. Army.  He has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.  He has been a company commander, and served at the battalion, brigade, division, and Army Command (ACOM) level staffs.  The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, organization, or group.

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National Security Situation:  Japan is one of the most stalwart allies of the United States (U.S.) in Asia.  The U.S. guarantees Japanese security and sovereignty.  Japan serves as one of the principal rivals of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Asia.  Japan is an island, however, and depends upon seaborne trade routes, especially those that transit through Southeast Asia.  PRC claims of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea (SCS) pose a direct threat to Japanese security.

Date Originally Written:  January 29, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  March 30, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of Japan towards PRC claims in the SCS.

Background:  For the greater part of recorded history, Japan has been a rival of the PRC.  All Japanese attempts to dominate the Asian mainland however, have ended in failure.  The defeat of Japan during WWII decisively put an end to Japanese Imperial ambitions.  Since the end of the Allied post-WWII occupation in 1952, Japan has been one of the most stalwart allies of the U.S. in Asia, and a bastion of western values.  Japan is an economic powerhouse, a vibrant democracy, and possesses an extremely formidable military.  For those reasons, as well as historical animosity, Japan is one of, if not the main rival, of the PRC in Asia.

The lifeblood of Japan’s prosperity flows through the Straits of Malacca, and then northeast through the SCS en route to Japan.  The PRC has laid claim to the SCS as sovereign territory throughout modern history, as well as Taiwan, and Japan’s own Senkaku Islands.  Events in the 21st century have reached a culminating point.  While Japan and the U.S. have guaranteed the inviolability of Japan’s claims to the Senkaku Islands, the PRC has gained de facto sovereignty over the SCS.  The PRC has done so by the construction, improvement, and militarization of artificial islands.  The PRC has vowed to defend its claims, and no member of the international community has chosen to challenge them, beyond legal arbitration through the United Nations.  Recent PRC assertiveness has its roots in an impressive regimen of military modernization and diplomatic initiatives colloquially called the “rise of China”.

Significance:  The PRC control of virtually the entire SCS poses a direct threat to Japan.  The PRC could coerce or compel Japan in any number of ways by cutting or hindering maritime traffic to Japan as it transits out of the Straits of Malacca.  In the event of war, Japan would be at a distinct disadvantage for the aforementioned reasons, to say nothing of its close proximity to the PRC.

Option #1:  Japan diverts inbound maritime traffic immediately until such a time as the issue of the SCS reaches an acceptable resolution.  Maritime traffic exiting the Straits of Malacca/Singapore would transit through the Java to Celebes to Philippine Sea route.  Simultaneously, Japan invests in improving Indonesian and Philippine port facilities/infrastructure along the proposed route.

Risk:  Cost and time.  The current route through the SCS is the shortest route and therefore the cheapest.  Option #1 entails a significant increase in the cost of shipping.  Furthermore, it will be a significant diplomatic effort for Japan to induce the Indonesian government to allow transit on this scale through its territorial waters.  Option #1 will require further diplomatic and economic effort to induce the Indonesian and Philippine governments to allow investment in the type of upgrades to their facilities that would be necessary to sustain such traffic.  Also, this option may embolden the PRC and result in a loss of face for Japan, as it will be perceived that the PRC is driving Japan out of the SCS.

Gain:  Safety for shipping bound for Japan.  This option completely skirts all PRC territorial claims.  Option #1 entails the cultivation of alliances with several Southeast Asian nations.  Furthermore, Option #1 establishes a buffer zone by placing multiple nations, and miles of blue water ocean, between the PRC’s navy and Japanese shipping.  In the event of war between the PRC and Japan, this route would be most difficult to interdict.

Option #2:  Japan immediately begins regular freedom of navigation patrols with its maritime self-defense force (M-SDF) through the SCS, with the option to provide armed escorts to critical maritime traffic.  Simultaneously, Japan seeks military cooperation with SCS claimants other than the PRC (e.g. Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines) to protect maritime traffic.

Risk:  The regular deployment of M-SDF ships to the SCS would be viewed as an escalation by the PRC, and an infringement on its sovereignty.  The likelihood of a stand-off at sea would be high (especially if this is a coalition of Southeast Asian nations), with the correlating risk of miscalculation in the use of force becoming casus belli.  Additionally, the more M-SDF ships that are deployed away from the home islands are the more ships that are unavailable to defend the Japanese mainland.

Gain:  This option would establish Japan as the leader against PRC encroachment.  The operational experience and partnerships gained would be invaluable.  Most importantly, this option virtually guarantees U.S. support, if Japan is perceived to be burden-sharing, but especially if Japan is threatened or attacked.  Practically, beginning and sustaining such patrols early on gives the PRC the flexibility to adjust to a new status quo without a loss of face.

Other Comments:  It has been well established here, but is a refrain of paramount importance – Japan must have access to maritime shipping to survive.  Japan can rely on U.S. support, but must stand ready to safeguard its own interests.  Both options presented here have cooperation and alliances with other nations as a common theme.  Operationalizing that theme is the best way for Japan to weather events in the SCS.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

None.

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