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Game of Thrones
South China Sea on the Boil

China is apoplectic about the strong reactions of its most powerful adversaries, Japan and the U.S., to its territorial aggression in the South China Sea. To start, the head of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott Swift, signaled the strong American stance by hitching a ride on one of the spy planes that are now over-flying the newly built islands around which China claims an exclusion zone. Meanwhile, Tokyo released the outline of a forthcoming defense white paper on July 19, and in Beijing’s eyes at least, it’s a wildly provocative document that sets the stage for conflict. The annual defense report lists Tokyo’s policies about the biggest threats to Japan, from North Korean nuclear missiles to ISIS’s activities in the Middle East to, of course, Chinese expansionism. Compared to last year’s report, the new one raises the stakes by taking a much firmer stance against Beijing. For example, the report condemns China’s reclamation work on the strategically located Fiery Cross Reef, where satellite imagery shows an airstrip being built. Defense News reports:

In what may turn out to be the first step in a dangerous game of chicken, Japan’s upcoming annual defense white paper will accuse China of belligerency in its dealings with neighbors as it becomes clear that China is laying the foundations of a military base on Fiery Cross Reef, one of seven artificial islands China has created in the disputed Spratly Islands.

In the outline of the white paper, to be released in late July, on top of the usual statements citing North Korea’s nuclear and missile development as issues of concern, the paper will directly call China’s reclamation work on the Spratlys, “high handed.” […]

Japan’s latest assertion led to predictably robust responses from Beijing, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying accusing Japan of trying to “smear China to create tensions in the region.”

Things have only deteriorated from there. The full white paper (which is not yet available on the Japanese defense ministry’s website), will go well beyond the Fiery Cross Reef issue, touching, for instance, on the matter of any undersea oil and gas deposits in the disputed areas. China’s response to all of this has not been restrained, with the Defense Ministry in Beijing calling Japanese policy “two-faced”, alluding to the possibility of military action should Japan take it too far, and reiterating its claim over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea as well. Reuters has more:

China reserves the right to a “necessary reaction” after Japan issued a defense review that called on Beijing to stop building oil and gas exploration platforms close to disputed waters in the East China Sea, the Defense Ministry has said. […]

China would further evaluate Japan’s defense review, or white paper, when the full text is issued and would then make a “necessary reaction depending on the situation”, it said.

Beijing described Japan’s annual defense review as misleading and malicious, saying it overplayed the “China military threat” and stoked tensions between the two East Asian powers. It stuck by its claims over the disputed island chain.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the review ignored that China’s maritime activities were carried out in line with international law, according to a statement posted late on Tuesday.

“The Diaoyu islands have belonged to China since ancient times … China will continue to take necessary measures to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and Japan should not hold any unrealistic illusions,” he said. […]

Neither side sounds willing to back down from its position, and China’s building projects, unfounded but emphatic claims to be following international law, and exploratory drilling aren’t likely to stop just because Japan has made opposing them more explicit in its policy. South China Sea tensions continue to heat back up after a lull at the beginning of this year, this time with the American navy more in the mix.

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