Japan Institute for National Fundamentals

Speaking out

Yasushi Tomiyama

【#305】Underwhelming Speech by Japanese Defense Minister

Yasushi Tomiyama / 2015.06.05 (Fri)

June 1, 2015

     At national defense leaders’ Shangri-La Dialogue conference on Asian security in Singapore on May 29-31, the United States and China confronted over China’s land reclamation at disputed reefs in the South China Sea. In his first international conference debut, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter made an articulate speech demanding the immediate and lasting halt to the reclamation and offering U.S. forces’ continuation of warning and surveillance activities in the area. In contrast, a speech by Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani in position to coordinate with the United States was underwhelming, stopping short of discussing the Japanese Self-Defense Forces’ specific operations for the future.

Articulate speech by U.S. defense chief
     The speech by Carter who assumed the defense post as recently as February reiterated his address at a ceremony for the change of command of the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii on May 27, clarifying that the United State would never tolerate China’s forceful change of the status quo. He fell short of touching on the Pentagon’s reported idea to send naval ships or patrol aircraft to waters within 12 miles from artificial islands emerging from the Chinese reclamation in the South China Sea under its policy of refusing to recognize such artificial islands as Chinese territory, apparently because the plan has yet to be approved by the White House. The waters within 12 miles from a country’s coastline are qualified as the country’s territorial waters under international law. In the speech, however, Carter indicated his determination to implement the plan once it is approved by President Barack Obama, by making a powerful remark that “America will not be deterred from exercising these rights (to the freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters).”
     In response, Chinese Adm. Sung Jianguo, who serves as deputy chief of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department and represented China at the conference, defended the land reclamation and facility construction on artificial islands as "justified, legitimate and reasonable" and emphasized that Chinese actions have never affected the freedom of navigation. This remark was similar to that of a PLA senior colonel who made a question to Carter from the floor after the U.S. Secretary’s speech and may represent a unified official view of the Chinese military.

Present law allows SDF to join surveillance
     Japanese Defense Minister Nakatani said the Chinese land reclamation and facility construction in the South China Sea is “deeply regrettable” and regional counties are “concerned” about Chinese actions. He urged China to “behave as a responsible power.” Unlike Carter, however, Nakatani stopped short of demanding the immediate and lasting halt to the reclamation. He also fell short of clarifying whether Japan is ready to join warning and surveillance activities in the South China Sea while noting the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force has conducted joint exercises with the U.S. Navy in the sea.
     Senior Defense Ministry officials said the Japanese SDF's warning and surveillance activities in the South China Sea are allowed under present law even before new security bills now under parliamentary consideration are enacted. Although it may be difficult to pressure China into destroying the artificial islands to restore the original reefs, the time might have come for Japan to consider the SDF's participation in the warning and surveillance activities along with the United States to demonstrate Japan's determination to block any more progress in the Chinese land reclamation and facility construction.

Yasushi Tomiyama is Senior Fellow and Planning Committee Member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals.