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The Great Game in South China Sea : Japan sent  its Largest Warship Heading to train with U.S., Indian Navies

south china sea

As American President Donald Trump is trying to implement his unrealistic pledges during his election campaign, he is trying to display his commitment to his pledges by symbolism like gestures of bonhomie with the new President of Taiwan and prompting Japan and South Korea to have increased presence in the South China Sea.

Reuters reported that one of Japan’s largest warship is set to conduct three months of operations in the South China Sea. The 24,000-ton JS Izumo (DDH-183) will depart in May from its homeport in Yokosuka, Japan for a series of port visits and exercises running into August. The ship, “will make stops in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka before joining the Malabar joint naval exercise with Indian and U.S. naval vessels in the Indian Ocean in July.” The aim is to test the capability of the Izumo by sending it out on an extended mission. it will train with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea. According to US officials there are plans for training events with the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces planned for the period. The deployment comes as the Trump administration has said it will be more aggressive in ensuring freedom of international waterways in the region.In addition to the size of the ship, the helicopter carriers name sends its own message.

Izumo is one of two helicopter carriers the Japanese have built for the stated claim of anti-submarine warfare and humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations. The ship entered into service in 2015 and its sister ship Kaga is set to commission this year. Both ships field seven Mitsubishi-built SH-60k ASW helicopters and seven AgustaWestland MCM-101 mine countermeasure (MCM) helicopters, according to U.S. Naval Institute’s Combat Fleets of the World. Both ships can also accommodate U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.

Japanese officials have said the threat of an expanded Chinese submarine fleet was a key driver of Japan developing the ship class. Izumo’s ASW capability fits in with the goals of Malabar 2017 trilateral exercise with India and the U.S., according to a December interview with U.S. 7th Fleet commander Adm. Joseph Aucoin with the Press Trust of India. Aucoin promised a larger and more complex ASW exercise in 2017 that would combine new capabilities of the Indian and U.S. forces in the region – like the Indian and U.S. P-8A and Indian P-8I ASW aircraft.Beijing, for its part, has been vocally opposed to Japan operating warships in the South China Sea and leaned on memories of Imperial Japanese actions in World War II.

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei said last year, “Japan should reflect upon rather than forget what it has done during the aggression, act and speak cautiously on issues concerning the East China Sea and the South China Sea, and make more efforts to increase mutual trust with its neighbors and promote regional peace and stability instead of sowing discord”.

Earlier Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen took to Twitter on January 14 to congratulate U.S. President Donald Trump on his inauguration in a move likely to draw objections from China, already angry with a protocol-breaking phone call a month ago between the two leaders. Tsai also vowed to deepen the island’s ties with the United States, which she said was Taiwan’s “most important international ally” and which shared common values of freedom, democracy and human rights, according to a statement by her office. The question of Taiwan’s status has shot to the top of the international agenda since Trump broke with decades of precedent last month by taking a congratulatory telephone call from Tsai. That, along with subsequent comments by Trump that the “one China” policy was up for negotiation, has infuriated Beijing, which views Taiwan as a wayward province to be brought under its control by force if necessary. Beijing distrusts Tsai because she leads the Democratic Progressive Party, which traditionally advocates independence for Taiwan.

What is South China Sea dispute?

The South China Sea disputes involve both island and maritime claims among several sovereign states within the region, namely the Nation of Brunei, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of China (Taiwan) (ROC), Malaysia, Indonesia, the Republic of the Philippines, and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. As a high proportion of the world’s trade passes through the South China Sea, there are many non-claimant nations that want the South China Sea to remain as international waters, with several nations (e.g. the United States of America) conducting “freedom of navigation” operations to promote this situation.

The disputes include the islands, reefs, banks and other features of the South China Sea, including the Spratly and Paracel islands, and the various boundaries, including those in the Gulf of Tonkin. There are further disputes, including the dispute in the waters near the Indonesian Natuna Islands which, by most definitions, are not part of the South China Sea. The interests of the nations include retaining or acquiring the rights to fishing areas; the exploration and potential exploitation of crude oil and natural gas under the waters of various parts of the South China Sea, and the strategic control of important shipping lanes.

In July 2016, an arbitral tribunal constituted under Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled against the PRC’s maritime claims in Philippines v. China, although it is not enforceable. The PRC does not acknowledge the tribunal, nor abide by its ruling, insisting that any resolution should be through bilateral negotiations with other claimants.

Power Game in South China Sea

China has been aggressively pursuing a policy of increasing its presence in the South China Sea. In recent years with its military buildup making it one of the top three militaries in the world, China has seemingly been pursuing an aggressive stance in the region gradually taking what it wants while intimidating others to back down rather than confront such a powerful entity. It has been taking over shoals and reefs in waters claimed by six neighbouring countries, especially those in Philippines waters and artificially building them into islands and claiming them as Chinese territory. It has also moved an oil rig into Vietnamese waters. There have been several violent acts of intimidation and aggression by Chinese ships primarily against fishing boats from other countries. Meanwhile the US has been challenging China’s claims by flying through airspace and sailing in waters China has claimed as part of its (new) territorial zone. With the ruling by an international tribunal in The Hague very clearly dismissing all Chinese claims, the already tense situation has heated up.

In the case of South China Sea, since it has rich resources, it attracts many countries for partnership with the smaller  fringe countries in the region, but China does not like. The area may be rich in oil and natural gas deposits; however, the estimates are highly varied. The Ministry of Geological Resources and Mining of the People’s Republic of China estimated that the South China Sea may contain 17.7 billion tons of crude oil (compared to Kuwait with 13 billion tons). In the years following the announcement by the PRC ministry, the claims regarding the South China Sea islands intensified. However, other sources claim that the proven reserve of oil in the South China Sea may only be 7.5 billion barrels, or about 1.1 billion tons.

International Arbitration

In a setback for China, the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague ruled that it has jurisdiction to hear the case brought by the Philippines over disputed islands in the South China Sea. The decision against China’s claim was made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration under the auspices of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).China, which is a signatory to UNCLOS, has said in spite of its own ratification of the treaty and its rules, it will not recognize the court and calls the decision “null and void”, “a piece of trash”, and a “law-abusing farce”. On July 12, 2016 The Hague tribunal sided with the Philippines and essentially undercut the entire basis for China’s claim that it owns most of the waters in the South China Sea. Beijing rejected the court’s jurisdiction and legitimacy months before the decision was even made. This unfavourable, albeit expected, ruling for China coincidentally took place a few days after Washington sent a guided-missile destroyer, the USS Lassen, to patrol within 12 nautical miles of the Mischief and Subi reefs, which have been central to China’s controversial reclamation activities in the South China Sea.  The United States aims to discourage China from using its sheer heft to coerce smaller states in Asia and reorder international relations in this part of the world to the disadvantage of American and its allies. However, China’s setback at The Hague will provide a headwind, in short, but hardly enough in itself to curb China’s determination to assert its position in the South China Sea or the potential for further escalation.

In the arbitration, Manila asked not for a ruling on the sovereignty of the disputed features, but only on the legitimacy of China’s arguments under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the legality of China’s forced expulsion of Philippine fishermen from their historic fishing grounds. The court sided with Manila on every point—a reminder that accepting China’s domination of the South China Sea because of Chinese power rather than rule of law would only increase the likelihood that Beijing will continue choosing coercion over diplomacy and rule of law in the future. Though focused on technicalities, the Tribunal spotlighted the much larger question of how the international community should expect China to behave towards smaller states as it amasses power.

New Complexities

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his Philippines visit in January 2017 pledged a US$9 billion aid package and offered to help Duterte in his trademark war on drugs and terror. Most analysts saw this as a reflection of Abe’s determination to match recent largesse from China, which in October pledged US$15 billion in investment and in January agreed to cooperate on 30 projects worth US$3.7 billion. To Duterte supporters, it was proof that his diplomatic pivot away from the United States and into the arms of China and Russia was starting to pay off. But if Duterte’s pivot – which many see as an effort to play the Philippines’ rival suitors off against each other – has been reaping some early dividends, some experts warn it has the potential not only to undermine US hegemony in the region, but jeopardise the Philippines’ control of its natural resources and even threaten Duterte’s own grip on power. It seems that Philippines is moderating its views on Chinese dominance in Soth China Sea.. It’s a dangerous game that [Duterte’s] playing,” said American historian Alfred McCoy, who believes that in accommodating China in the South China Sea, the Philippines is in danger of becoming a pawn in a two-pronged strategy by China to deal a “crippling blow to US global power”.

India and South China Sea

Amid China’s assertive postures in South China Sea, Vietnam has invited India to explore oil and gas in the disputed region, a move that is sure to be resented by a prickly Beijing. India and Vietnam have already entered into an agreement for oil and gas exploration in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the region. India has been vocal in recent times on the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea due to China’s growing assertion in the disputed region. India has been pushing for resolving disputes in the region through a peaceful manner and within the purview of international law. India has been ramping up economic and defence ties with countries in the Asia-Pacific region to counter what some perceive as China’s expansionist designs in the region. India has entered into strategic understandings with countries such US, Vietnam and Japan to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. India’s leading public sector oil giant ONGC has entered into a collaboration with Vietnam in exploring oil blocks in the region.

India and Vietnam have also stepped up cooperation in defence and maritime security. India recently installed a satellite tracking system in Vietnam that will provide the latter high resolution images to track the activities in the disputed South China Sea region. India’s growing proximity to Vietnam has not gone down well with China which has objected to India’s navigation in the disputed South China Sea region and using it for commercial purposes.

Thucydides Trap

China’s President Xi Jinping and a number of Western scholars have warned that resisting Beijing’s assertion of control over the South China Sea increases the dangers of the “Thucydides Trap” which posits that rising powers and status quo powers inevitably go to war. The only way to avoid that trap, they say, is for the United States to accommodate China and accept what Xi calls a “New Model of Great Power Relations” in which Washington and Beijing would determine the future of Asia on an equal basis without America’s allies and partners spoiling the two major powers’ happy condominium.

China unhappy

These are all positive and mature gestures from the US and China, but the South China Sea is rapidly evolving into a big power game. With many other policy priorities, neither the US nor China will allow the South China Sea issue to jeopardise overall bilateral relations. Without a doubt, the US must assure its allies in this region and also continue to assert its freedom of navigation rights in order to avoid giving China tacit consent to changing international norms. China is also certainly unhappy about the US’ actions.

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