Less than two weeks into the new year, a new diplomatic flare-up in the South China Sea is already on our radar. This time, Japan rerouted maritime surveillance aircraft to locations that abut the contested waters. Given the sensitivity of the region, the move will surely invite scrutiny from Beijing.
The decision to reroute the aircraft came Jan. 10, when the Japanese Defense Ministry said aircraft returning from anti-piracy operations in Africa would refuel in places such as Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, not in their traditional destinations like Singapore and Thailand, which are far from the disputed maritime zone. The aircraft in question — two P-3C Orion maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft — were first deployed to the East African country of Djibouti in May 2008 as a contribution to counter-piracy efforts in the Horn of Africa region, and they will touch down first in Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay — a direct inlet of the South China Sea — in February.
Notably, the refueling stops appear to be the direct result of a series of high-level defense meetings that Japan held with South China Sea claimant countries in 2015. In other words, the decision was deliberated before it was executed.
Japan is not officially conducting reconnaissance patrols from these bases. Indeed, Tokyo insists that the flights are meant to be the naval aviation equivalent of port calls, or transit stops. But considering the aircraft's capabilities, China is understandably nervous. The P-3s are equipped with a powerful surveillance suite, including a maritime search radar, designed to spot very small targets such as submarine periscopes. Such a capability would be extremely useful when tracking and monitoring maritime traffic, or a military presence for that matter. Tokyo has clearly stated that the refueling stops do not equate to the permanent basing of P-3s in any country, nor do they obligate Japan to share maritime surveillance data (should it be acquired) with the host country.
In fact, on the surface the rerouting of aircraft appears to be only a modest step by the Japanese. Many observers believed Tokyo was preparing to conduct joint patrols with the U.S. Navy after the Japanese Diet passed long-awaited defense reforms in September 2015, authorizing the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to employ force abroad to defend its allies.
But those observers may have simply expected too much, too soon. The passage of security legislation was politically taxing for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Intent on expanding its majority, the LDP can ill-afford to squander popularity ahead of upper house elections in the summer through overly assertive military deployments.
Japanese investment is welcomed in Southeast Asia, but military cooperation with a former occupier is often seen as a bridge too far.
Aside from managing its own domestic politics, Japan must also manage political sensitivities in its partner countries — all of which experienced brutal Japanese occupation during World War II. Japanese investment is, of course, welcomed in Southeast Asia, but military cooperation with a former occupier is often seen as a bridge too far. Discussions between Tokyo and Manila to set up a Visiting Forces Agreement, which would give the JSDF basing rights in the Philippines, have so far yielded nothing. This suggests considerable domestic opposition in the Philippines — the claimant country in the South China Sea that needs military assistance the most. But even if the Philippines remains opposed to basing, refueling stops are a low-key and politically palatable way to revitalize a military relationship.
When these refueling stops occur, China will almost certainly react with protest and will accuse Japan of emboldening its rival in the South China Sea. Consequently, Beijing may redouble its efforts to construct military and civilian infrastructure on reclaimed islands in the South China Sea, actions designed to make China's presence impossible to dislodge. Tempting as it may be to regard Chinese opposition as an overreaction, Beijing is actually reacting to a future in which Japan slowly overcomes operational and political barriers to routinize its presence in the South China Sea. After all, refueling stops, like port calls, are not just a logistical necessity: They also give navies experience in interacting with their foreign counterparts, building the basis for increased cooperation down the line.
Japan wants to play a more active military role in the Pacific — indeed, it may have no other choice — but to do this Tokyo needs countries that are willing to host its forces. It is safe to say that Japan is not going to the trouble of altering its flight plans just so its aircraft will have a small number of additional refueling options over the next decade. Starting with these modest visits, Tokyo hopes to lay the foundation for a greater, more sustainable presence. China is justifiably concerned.