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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