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Asia's Game of Thrones
Japan and Philippines Challenge China on New Fronts

The United States is not the only country planning new freedom-of-navigation exercises in China-claimed waters. Reuters reports that Japan is preparing to send a major message in the South China Sea:

Japan plans to dispatch its largest warship on a three-month tour through the South China Sea beginning in May, three sources said, in its biggest show of naval force in the region since World War Two. […]

“The aim is to test the capability of the Izumo by sending it out on an extended mission,” said one of the sources who have knowledge of the plan. “It will train with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea,” he added, asking not to be identified because he is not authorized to talk to the media.

If these plans come to fruition, they will represent a serious elevation of Japan’s involvement in the South China Sea. Tokyo has rhetorically supported Beijing’s rival claimants there for some time now, but it has not matched its formal declarations with action. By planning a major show of force in a disputed theatre where it has no claim, Japan is pointedly signaling its willingness to challenge Chinese expansionism more assertively. In the past, China has protested even when Japan dares to mention the South China Sea dispute; the prospect of the Japanese training there with American forces is sure to raise Beijing’s ire.

Meanwhile the Philippines, which has been undergoing a strained attempt to improve relations with China, is now moving to prevent Chinese encroachments into its eastern waters. Reuters:

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the navy to put up “structures” to assert sovereignty over a stretch of water east of the country, where Manila has reported a Chinese survey ship was casing the area last year.

The Philippines has lodged a diplomatic protest with Beijing after the vessel was tracked moving back and forth over Benham Rise, a vast area east of the country declared by the United Nations in 2012 as part of the Philippines’ continental shelf.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Duterte’s instruction was to increase naval patrols in that area and put up structures “that says this is ours”.

Soon after the Philippine announcement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry denied Manila’s sovereignty claim over Benham Rise and chided the Philippines for putting out “false information” on the matter. The spat demonstrates the lingering distrust that makes a full reconciliation with China elusive, despite Duterte’s attempts to mend the relationship.

Taken together, the Japan and Philippine stories suggest a wariness about Chinese maritime activities shared by both natural rivals and potential partners of China. With the ostensibly pacifistic Japanese deploying a warship and the ostensibly China-friendly Filipinos putting up their guard against Chinese expansionism, other states may soon make similar calculations. The stakes continue to rise in Asia, with no end in sight.

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  • KremlinKryptonite

    Now this is welcome news. Interestingly, I just wrote about the Japanese Navy and the Izumo class ships on a TAI thread the other day.
    I will reiterate here what I said on that thread. Not counting the U.S. Navy, the Japanese Navy is the best in Asia, and the Izumo-class helicopter carriers are a pretty big deal.
    Their anti-submarine and surveillance capabilities are enormous, and at some future date the Japanese could decide to harden their decks and purchase F35 Bs turning them into real carriers with short takeoff/vertical landing stealth fighters.

    • f1b0nacc1

      While I share your admiration for the IJN (oops, sorry….the JMSDF), I do think you are overstating things a bit. The Izumos are essentially tarted up destroyers (really cruisers, in such that this title means anything anymore) with a very large flight deck and hanger. They don’t have the sensors, crews, or fuel/ammo storage capacity to support sustained air operations, and unless you consider the F-35B (which the Japanese do not have at this time, and have shown no interest in purchasing… for them!) particularly useful, they don’t have anything to put on those vessels other than helicopters. It would be cheaper, easier, and faster for them to simply build something in the 40-50,000 ton range from scratch (they certainly have the shipyards that can do it) than try to do a half-assed conversion of something that ‘looks’ like a carrier, but doesn’t have any of the critical capabilities.

      Don’t get me wrong, i think that the Japanese are a major problem for the Chinese, and would be delighted if this sort of thing develops over time. With that said, I suspect that improving their long-range land-based air, dealing with their desperate need for more anti-aircraft/missile systems, and improving their defense sensors would be a better use of their money in the short term while they go about laying down the hulls (and training the crews) for the next generation of ships to implement a real maritime strategy.

      • KremlinKryptonite

        Well sitting here in Asia and bouncing back and forth between Korea and Japan for nearly a decade (USN) i’m pretty well tuned into the dispositions and capabilities of everyone in the neighborhood.
        Of course, the Japanese are less likely to take such a step, at least in the near-term, to avoid the geopolitical tensions that such a game changing strategic decision would bring about.

        The Izumo class has the range and equipment to threaten anyone’s submarine force, particularly as the Japanese and US are at the forefront of network-centric warfare. These helicopter destroyers were built to be working in tandem with the deadly Soryu-class subs and P3-Orions (as well as US operated P8 Poseidons)

        • f1b0nacc1

          The Izumo has some interesting capabilities, but by itself isn’t a threat to anyone’s (other than North Korea’s) submarine force. It is certainly capable of being a worthwhile escort, or a decent ASW sweeper, but those are hardly game-changing roles. Now, along with some subs (the Soryu is intriguing, but unproven at this point, though in a few years they should be) and advanced ASW aircraft (I have spent some time abord a Poseidon, and am extremely impressed with its advances over the Orion) they will represent a powerful ASW force, they ultimately represent nothing more than a (very powerful) defensive system that has no serious power projection capabilities.

          The Izumo and her sisters thus represent more or less the continuation of Japanese naval thinking since the rebirth of the JMSDF….very solid defensive ships, designed to operate so as to protect existing Japanese possessions and make aggressive against Japan difficult and expensive. In this, they are fine designs, but they change almost nothing. Barring some sort of viable offensive force (up until now, the USN played that role), the JMSDF isn’t really capable of doing very much against a determined aggressor that is willing to take a few losses in exchange for a few victories. China is rapidly approaching the stage where they will be able to assume that role, and unless Japan does a great deal more than put some hovering targets (in the form of helicopters) out there, they will be forced to make some very serious (and unpleasant) choices indeed.

          Your broader point about the geopolitical (and truly the horrifically wrenching domestic) turmoil that such strategic changes would imply is well taken, and quite frankly I don’t see it happening anytime soon. There were numerous suggestions during the building of the Izumo that the Japanese would attempt to ‘slip through’ a serious sea control ship of some sort, but its rather pedestrian design put paid to that sort of speculation, welcome though it was. Abe is bold for a Japanese leader, but he is still Japanese, and thus tied to the risk-averse, deeply conservative strategy in which he ‘grew up’. Perhaps he will lay the groundwork for a successor to finish his work, but given domestic politics in Japan (through the next few years at the very least), I don’t see anything significant changing.

          • KremlinKryptonite

            Yes, Japan’s submarine fleet is particularly worrisome to China because of Chinese weakness in ASW. China has not practiced ASW in wartime and has been institutionally deficient in both skills and assets.
            Japan, on the other hand, has operated submarines for many decades. Japanese submarine crews are well trained, and on par with their American counterparts.

            Japan’s postwar submarine doctrine concentrates submarines at a number of key invasion routes — the Tsugaru Strait, Tsushima Strait, Kanmon Strait, and the Soya Strait. This concentration is a Cold War holdover, however, from the days when Japan had to consider that a Soviet invasion would come during WWIII.
            A more China-centric deployment plan, especially with the Senkakus and Ryukyu islands in mind, is in the works and will certainly include more forward deployments.

            The Soryu-class are some of the most advanced non-nuclear attack submarines in the world, and not just because of the high tech weapons load. Perhaps more important are the four stirling air independent propulsion systems which allow the sub to stay underwater far longer than other diesel electric counterparts.

            The Izumo, with its full length flight deck and hangar, can accommodate and service up to 14 helicopters. Armed with SH-60 anti-submarine helicopters, each Izumo can sweep a large area of water for subs.
            During the 2013 US-Japan Dawn Blitz exercises, the JS Hyuga (predecessor class of Izumo) acted as an airfield at sea for Chinook transport and Apache attack helicopters of the Ground Self Defense Force. In a pinch, Izumo could carry a battalion’s worth of troops from the 1st Airborne Brigade or the Western Army Infantry Regiment, and transport them to shore via helicopter.

          • f1b0nacc1

            The Japanese will have to alter their sub deployments certainly, but given the range and speed of their existing fleet, this is a fairly minor issue. They might have a few availability problems, and there are no natural choke points near the Senkakus, but this problems can be overcome with a bit of creativity, and the Japanese do not lack for that.

            I am a big fan of Stirling power plants, but they do have their own limitations (bulkiness being the biggest problem), which I find interesting in the context of the news that Japan is actually looking into LiPo batteries for their next sub. With that said, the Soyru has a wonderful reputation, though the rather embarrassing failure of the Japanese to make a good showing during the bidding for the next gen Australian sub purchase did leave some questions.

            I have actually been on the Hyuga, and it is a fine ship. With that said, short of unloading the ship almost completely, leaving it useless until after it was resupplied, moving a significant number of troops and supplies with it would be problematic at best. A battalion of light infantry might be useful for show, or even as an emergency reinforcement (for most of the islands in question, Japan has more than sufficient air transport for the job though), but only at the cost of a temporary ‘mission kill’ for the transporting vessel. The Izumo and her sisters are potentially more useful in this sense, and provide wonderful ASW capabilities, though they tend to be a bit limited in other areas. My original point still stands though, these ships have almost no power projection capability worth discussing, certainly nothing that the Japanese cannot provide with other existing assets. Moving a few companies of lightly armed troops and minimal supplies is not significant when dealing with the far larger military that the Japanese are likely to face in China.

          • Suzy Dixon

            I’m confused, or perhaps you are? RT never said that they were meant to be great power projectors, but rather they are part of a potent anti-submarine force and possible troop deployment force.
            And a quick search turned up that the Japanese subs did not lack any capabilities or sophistication except range. Australia is so isolated that it could not really make do with the Japanese subs having a 6100nm range. From Australia, the subs have to travel about 3800nm just to get within range of Taiwan and traverse the whole South China Sea. So, one can assume that the barracuda conventional subs will still have a better range than that so as to avoid fuel stops.

            But it seems the more important issue was Australia not wanting to anger the Chinese communist party. If Australia made such an important and expensive acquisition from Japan it would have sent a real ripple through the area and served the USs interest to enhance relations between it’s two primary allies.

          • f1b0nacc1

            The comment that KK made which kicked this discussion off was his suggestion that the Izumo would be a useful platform for the F-35B, and that this would give the Japanese a ‘real’ carrier. I pointed out that this was not really an option, and that the JMSDF is really just a glorified ASW force with some limited area denial capability in its subs. Their ability to project power is pretty much limited to a few non-sustainable companies of light troops, which has no real value other than for show.

            The Australians rejected the Soyru largely because of serious deficiencies in the manufacturers replies to questions regarding technology transfer and quality control. The range issue was entirely secondary (Japan, while not isolated, certainly has to have subs with adequate range for its pacific patrols), and really only became a big deal because of the enormous range offered by the French proposal. Essentially it was a rationalization after the fact, though it is a hugely impressive achievement of engineering.

            Overall I agree with KK’s assessment of the JMSDF as it is right now, and his understanding of the political limitations upon it is entirely consonant with my own. I simply don’t really see much of this current situation changing without some very serious changes in Japanese politics, changes that aren’t likely in the near future.

  • Nevis07

    If this incident with the Benham Rise doesn’t finally clarify China’s intentions to those who claim they wish to rise peacefully, I don’t know what will. They claim sovereignty over the whole SCS, but when the UNCLOS vote to clarify The Philippines ownership of the Plateau, and it is rejected by China (note that the plateau is on east side of The Philippines leading into the wider Pacific), we should all take note. This reveals China’s real ambitions and they’re only getting started.

  • Jon Robbins

    Kind of laughable. Obviously some sort of concerted attempt to generate problems between PI and PRC. The bottom line is that this underwater feature–the Benham Rise–has been designated as inside the PI Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ.)

    China has a right to innocent passage through that EEZ. There is no evidence in any of the articles I see on this subject that China is encroaching on PI’s EEZ rights.

    What I see is the deliberate use of vague terms like “territory” and “sovereignty claim” to confuse the situation. The PI Secretary of Defense is clearly trying to exacerbate the situation as is the Philippines media.

    What exactly is China doing with regard to the EEZ that is wrong? The Benham Rise is NOT in PI territorial waters–it’s in their EEZ. So what’s the issue?

    • RealityCheck

      The Philippines claimed that they tracked a Chinese survey ship monitoring the Benham Rise and it seems the Philippines are suspicious that China was surveying the Rise with future intent of building more island bases, which China denied saying it was a scientific expedition. Other than that I don’t see anything China has done with regards to the Benham Rise that would provoke or deserves to provoke such a strong reaction.

      • Jon Robbins

        I agree. If China is up to something, then someone should make a detailed case about it. This piece just uses weasel words to insinuate that China is up to no good.

  • D4x

    It increasingly seems China is re-asserting prior trading and/or political empire claims in The Philippines. Sphere of influence, with intimidation. Also, the SCS is a distraction, for the USA and Japan, from China’s real hegemonic strategies in Asia: riparian control, and the New Silk Road.

    • Jon Robbins

      What “prior political empire claims” does China have in the Philippines?

      • D4x

        Ming Dynasty, early 1400’s CE, Luzon. Before the Spaniards, The Philippines had quite a complex history. cites William Henry Scott (1983). “A History of the Philippines”. Guttenburg Free Online E-books. 1: 8

        • Jon Robbins

          “In Luzon, the Kingdom of Tondo was ruled over by the Lakandula dynasty and the kingdom grew wealthy via the exclusive trading-rights of Chinese goods which they marketed in southeast Asia. This was granted to them by the Ming Dynasty.”

          Tondo may have made some pro forma obeisance to the Ming, but, your use of the word “trading” above seems like the right characterization of the relationship.

          • D4x

            “The Yongle Emperor also instituted a Chinese governor on Luzon during Zheng He’s voyages and appointed Ko Ch’a-lao to that position” was the next sentence in wiki, different citation. my error.

            Even today, China always sees everyone else as ‘tributary’ to the Middle Kingdom.

            I was also thinking China’s moves in the SCS were reminiscent of WW2 Japan quest for resources, and, here is Victor Davis Hanson today:

            “…2) China has grown contemptuous of the United States. By leveraging Asian countries, flagrantly cheating on international trade agreements, expanding its defenses, creating artificial atolls as bases in the Spratly Islands, and cutting the leash on its mad-dog North Korean pit bull, China sought to re-create something akin to the Japanese Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere of the early 1940s, or the earlier New Order in East Asia of the late 1930s. …”
            Read more at:

          • Jon Robbins

            Yeah, you’re right. Missed that somehow.

            As far as quests for resources go, I suppose there is some similarity between any two examples, but China has basically operated within a market framework, unlike Japan (who was, after all, only emulating the European empires.) And we, of course, benefited from facing small numbers of stone-age peoples with no defenses against the germs we brought with us, as we appropriated the resources of North America. It’s true that China has used the heavy hand itself in many instances, though considerably more, on the whole, when under Mongol or Manchu domination than under most indigenous dynasties, but, historically, it does not compare unfavorably with the West, in my view. Past performance is, as they say, no guarantee of future returns, however.

            VDH doesn’t do much for me as a rule. His point there seems way overdrawn. Bottom line is that if China cheats at trade, then no one has to trade with them. And we didn’t have to give our CEOs free rein to inject huge amounts of capital into China, thereby enabling a super-fast development path that has rapidly put them in a position to begin to challenge our global hegemonic dominance. Oops!

            Also, we had our own history of appropriating European intellectual property in the 19th century when we were net importers of technology and culture too.

            “Expanding its defenses” doesn’t sound like much of a crime and neither does “leveraging Asian countries.” I guess this refers to Cambodia in ASEAN and the like. There’s some hard ball there, but no worse than others.

            The artificial islands are an issue, but given that we have been engaged in illegal invasions and attempts at regime change in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the last decade and a half, we’re hardly in possession of the moral high ground on that score.

            And I don’t see China as having “unleashed” North Korea. I think China is struggling to figure out how to prevent North Korea from becoming a pretext for us to put in place systems that they view as being ultimately designed to help contain China.

            I’m not seeing the Japan similarity. The Chinese have gone to school on the failure of Japan (and Germany and the USSR) and seem to be maneuvering carefully not to go down that path. It is clear that they don’t accept the unipolar world and want eventual strategic parity with the US. Maybe if we hadn’t gotten ourselves mired in regime change games in the Middle East and a food fight with Russia, we’d be in a better position to deal with the challenge.

            Ultimately, the decision–which we really haven’t yet made explicitly–is whether we insist on remaining the sole superpower or not. If we do, then we have misplayed China for the last 25 years.

          • D4x

            You deserve a more thorough reply than I can offer tonight. In no order, VDH is one of my favorite writers, but this is not his best. That is why I did not include the WW2Japan model in my original comment.

            I still believe China retains historical memory of being humiliated by western imperialists in the 19th century., especially the ‘theft’ of tea by Robert Fortune
            OTOH, still prefer Darjeeling or Ceylon Black to Oolong.

            My preference is to view the surviving land empires, especially China, India, Russia, and Persia, as a reminder that colonialism, imperialism, whatnot, are part of history. The ‘all colonialism was evil’ theme wore me out in 2004.

            Since SecState Tillerson is travelling to Asia, assume we might meet in a different thread.

  • Angel Martin

    “Meanwhile the Philippines, which has been undergoing a strained attempt to improve relations with China, is now moving to prevent Chinese encroachments into its eastern waters. ”

    Duterte, via on the job training, has now learned that countries do not have permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.

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