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Seiji Kurosawa

【#452】Japan Should Contribute to FONOP — A Year after Arbitral Ruling

Seiji Kurosawa / 2017.07.12 (Wed)

July 10, 2017

     July 12 marks the first anniversary of an arbitral ruling on China’s construction of artificial islands and other activities in the South China Sea. The ruling on the petition filed by the Philippines denied China’s claim almost completely and binds the parties to the dispute. However, China brushed off the ruling as wastepaper. Has anything changed in the past year?

Firm Beijing, Swinging Manila
     On June 29, the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies confirmed China’s construction of new military facilities on artificial islands in the Spratly Island chain based on a satellite image analysis, pointing out that the facilities are available for the deployment of military equipment including fighter aircraft and mobile missile launchers. China has continued to brush off the ruling while dredging rocks to destroy the local environment and constructing runways and gun batteries to turn artificial islands into fortresses.
     On March 19, meanwhile, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte indicated a weak attitude, saying the Philippines could not stop China’s construction of an artificial island on the Scarborough Shoal to which Manila has made territorial claims. When chairing a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in April, the president indicated Manila’s reconciliation with Beijing instead of blaming China’s expansionism. Last October, the president called for revising the U.S.-Philippines alliance, signaling his plan to keep distance from the United States.
     The first U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) under the Trump administration came in waters within 12 nautical miles from the Mischief Reef on May 25. In the operation, the U.S. Navy destroyer Dewey conducted a rescue exercise to emphasize that its passage was not innocent passage that usually is done in territorial waters. Although more stimulating exercises such as aircraft takeoff and landing, and firing were available, the U.S. Navy chose to conduct the low-key exercise.
     In its second FONOP under the Trump administration, the U.S. Navy destroyer Stetham conducted innocent passage through waters within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracel Island chain. The island has been claimed not only by China but also by Vietnam and Taiwan. The innocent passage indicates that the United States regards the area as territorial waters of some country and that the U.S. FONOP fairly treats all countries instead of singling out China. Even such soft operation is appreciable as it demonstrates that the United States does not tolerate China’s excessive maritime claim that demands any foreign warship to obtain prior approval on passage through Chinese territorial waters.

Ruling should not become real wastepaper
     Considering what happened in the past year, the South China Sea ruling has been ignored due to Duterte’s conciliatory approach to China and his estrangement from the United States, as well as China’s further militarization of artificial islands. While China refrains from reclaiming the Scarborough Shoal, the ruling is feared to become real wastepaper unless the international community continues to demonstrate by words and actions that China’s assertive behaviors cannot be tolerated. Therefore, the United States should continue the FONOP. The U.S. remains the only superpower that has willingness and capabilities to do so.
     It may be needless to say Japan should make maximum efforts instead of depending fully on the United States. In fact, the Dewey received refueling support from the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer Izumo after conducting the FONOP in the South China Sea (The Asagumo Shimbun, June 8). Japan is making some contributions to the FONOP.

Seiji Kurosawa is Secretary General of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals.