Australia’s Defense Minister Kevin Andrews, visiting Japan this week, jointly pledged with his Japanese counterpart Gen Nakatani that the two countries would boost defense ties. In meetings yesterday the two discussed Japan’s evolving defense posture, and Nakatani briefed Andrews on the recently revised Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines. Both expressed “serious concern” about China’s land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea. “We will jointly urge relevant countries to pursue solutions in accordance with international law,” Nakatani said.
Andrews will today visit the shipyards where Japan’s Shoryu-class long range non-nuclear submarines are built. Under new military export rules set out by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan is in the running to replace Australia’s aging Collins-class submarines.
While Nakatani met with Andrews, Abe met with his Filipino counterpart, Benigno Aquino, in Tokyo in a symbolic demonstration of solidarity and agreement over South China Sea territorial matters. In a press conference afterwards, Abe announced: “Regarding the South China Sea issue, we’ve reaffirmed that we are concerned about the large-scale reclamation and that we are opposed to unilateral attempts to change the status quo.”
Some have called China’s program for achieving its territorial ambitions a “cabbage leaf” (AKA “salami-slicing”) strategy—a plan to take small, successive steps, each of which is, supposedly, too small to provoke a substantial response. In other words, don’t seize Poland; seize a border town. And then another.
But Beijing’s recent land reclamation push and the subsequent doubling down with attempts to establish de facto control of the surrounding waters may have been a bridge too far, pushing its neighbors into an ever-closer coalition against it. Will China recognize this and at least temporarily back off, as it has in the past? Or will its lack of regard for the seriousness of its more powerful opponents lead it to push onward?