Asia's Game of Thrones
China’s Provocation Problem

Having wound up their joint coast guard drills earlier this week, Japan and the Philippines are now going ahead with their first naval drills in the South China Sea, Reuters reports:

Japan and the Philippines will hold their first joint naval drill this month in the South China Sea near a disputed shoal claimed by Beijing, sources in Tokyo and the Philippines said.

The May 12 maritime safety exercise, which will practice the code for unplanned encounters at sea, known as CUES, is part of an agreement signed by Japan and the Philippines in January aimed at tightening security cooperation.

The nature of the training is unlikely to worry China unduly, as it has conducted similar exercises with the United States in the past.

But the presence of Japanese naval vessels in the South China Sea signals Japan’s growing interest in the region, and may irritate Beijing as criticism of its land reclamation projects there mounts.

“The exercise will not be far from Scarborough Shoal,” one of the sources in Japan said, referring to a rocky outcrop which China seized in 2012 after a three-month standoff with the Philippines.

The reason Reuters claims this is unlikely to worry China is that CUES is really just a protocol drill aimed at keeping encounters between ships from two countries from escalating. The two navies won’t be practicing cooperating against a third party, which would be more likely to raise hackles in China. So Reuters is right that Beijing will probably stay relatively quiet on this one.

Nevertheless China cannot be pleased with these drills given recent developments. With Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushing for amendments to Japan’s constitution allowing it to come to its allies’ aid, with relations between Manila and Tokyo warming since the latter apologized to the former in 2014 for wartime atrocities, and with another emerging Japanese (and Indian) ally, Vietnam, doing it’s own land reclamation in the South China Sea, there is evidence that some kind of regional cooperation against Chinese machinations in the region is starting to take shape. After all, the biggest strategic liability in China’s plan for territorial expansion the South China Sea is that it’s aggression will spur a group of like-minded neighbors to form a coalition to resist. Right now, China is not being very successfully at avoiding that pitfall.

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