Ja­panese navy drill in South China Sea may lead to larger role


A tiny mil­i­tary ex­er­cise in the Philip­pines this week may presage some­thing much big­ger: the en­try of Ja­pan into the tus­sle for con­trol of the South China Sea.

A Ja­panese sur­veil­lance plane and about 20 troops con­ducted the first of two days of joint train­ing with the Philip­pine navy on Tues­day off the coast of Palawan, a strate­gi­cally im­por­tant is­land not far from con­tested is­lands claimed by sev­eral coun­tries in­clud­ing China and the Philip­pines.

While the P-3C plane was be­ing used for mar­itime search-an­dres­cue drills and dis­as­ter re­lief drills, the air­craft is also a main­stay of Ja­pan’s anti-sub­ma­rine and other aerial sur­veil­lance ef­forts. In the­ory, it could help the U.S. keep an eye on the Chi­nese navy in the South China Sea. Some ex­perts think that’s a pos­si­bil­ity in com­ing years.

“It’s likely we will see Ja­pan do­ing joint sur­veil­lance and re­con­nais­sance in the South China Sea in the com­ing years,” said Narushige Michishita, a de­fense ex­pert at the Na­tional Grad­u­ate In­sti­tute for Pol­icy Stud­ies in Tokyo. “It is go­ing to be with the U.S., Aus­tralia, the Philip­pines and oth­ers.”

Oth­ers are less cer­tain. Such a move would raise ten­sions with China, with which Ja­pan al­ready has a ma­jor ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute over is­lands far­ther north in the East China Sea. It would face public op­po­si­tion at home from those who want Ja­pan’s mil­i­tary to avoid get­ting en­tan­gled in over­seas dis­putes. The mil­i­tary is al­ready stretched, keep­ing an eye for ex­am­ple on North Korea and China in the East China Sea.

Takashi Manzen, speak­ing for the Ja­panese del­e­ga­tion, said the P-3C, which was manned by 13 Ja­panese flight crewmem­bers and ac­com­pa­nied by three Filipino mil­i­tary per­son­nel, flew 100 kilo­me­ters (62 miles) west­ward from Palawan is­land with a Philip­pine navy is­lan­der to­ward the South China Sea in a mock search for a miss­ing ship.

While the Philip­pines and Ja­pan can pos­si­bly hold sim­i­lar drills in the fu­ture, Manzen told The As­so­ci­ated Press that these would re­main fo­cused on im­prov­ing dis­as­ter re­sponse, “not pa­trolling, not sur­veil­lance.”

Chi­nese For­eign Min­istry spokesman Lu Kang ex­pressed con­cern about the ex­er­cise.

‘Prepa­ra­tion ahead of mak­ing a

fi­nal de­ci­sion’

“We hope that the sides in ques­tion do not play up and cre­ate ten­sions on pur­pose, and that any in­ter­ac­tions be­tween those coun­tries would ac­tu­ally con­trib­ute to re­gional peace and sta­bil­ity, rather than the op­po­site,” Lu told re­porters at a reg­u­lar brief­ing.

Philip­pine naval per­son­nel flew on board the Ja­panese P-3C to ob­serve oper­a­tions and learn tech­niques and pro­ce­dures, Col. Jonas Lumawag of the Philip­pine navy told re­porters. The P-3C com­mu­ni­cated with a smaller Philip­pine plane on a hy­po­thet­i­cal search mis­sion for a miss­ing ship or plane.

Both Ja­panese and Philip­pine com­man­ders stressed that the drill was to prac­tice search-and-res­cue, and said they weren’t aware of any plans for joint pa­trols.

The ex­er­cise fol­lows the firstever joint drill be­tween the two navies six weeks ago, and is part of a con­flu­ence of de­vel­op­ments that sug­gest Ja­pan may at least test the wa­ters in the South China Sea. Con­sider this:

— Ja­pan’s par­lia­ment is de­bat­ing leg­is­la­tion this sum­mer that would loosen post-World War II re­stric­tions on its mil­i­tary to al­low it op­er­ate out­side of the im­me­di­ate area. Un­der ques­tion­ing by op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers, De­fense Min­is­ter Gen Nakatani said that could in­clude pa­trols in the South China Sea in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions — though he added Ja­pan has no cur­rent plans for that.

— The new head of the U.S. Pa­cific Com­mand, Adm. Harry Harris, told the Ja­panese media on a re­cent visit to Tokyo that the P-3 air­craft, which the U.S. also uses, is well suited to pa­trol the South China Sea. He added that he wel­comes Ja­pan’s will­ing­ness to play a larger role in re­gional se­cu­rity. The U.S. is look­ing for help from Ja­pan, Aus­tralia and other al­lies as it con­fronts Chi­nese chal­lenges to its naval dom­i­nance in the Pa­cific.

— The drill co­in­cides with ris­ing Amer­i­can crit­i­cism of China for re­claim­ing land and build­ing struc­tures on dis­puted is­lands and out­crop­pings in the South China Sea. Ja­panese of­fi­cials are also openly crit­i­cal of China’s at­tempts to es­tab­lish its ter­ri­to­rial claims through con­struc­tion.

“Cer­tainly the cur­rent Ja­panese gov­ern­ment seems to be se­ri­ously sig­nal­ing that this is a pos­si­bil­ity,” said Corey Wal­lace, a se­cu­rity an­a­lyst join­ing the Freie Univer­si­tat in Ber­lin in July. “My sense is that the Ja­panese gov­ern­ment is putting into place the nec­es­sary le­gal and mil­i­tary mech­a­nisms as prepa­ra­tion ahead of mak­ing a fi­nal de­ci­sion about whether to get more di­rectly in­volved later down the track.”


(Above) Protesters dis­play plac­ards dur­ing a rally out­side the Ja­panese Em­bassy to protest the on­go­ing naval ex­er­cises by Ja­pan and the United States in the western sec­tion of the coun­try, in sub­ur­ban Pasay city, south of Manila, Tues­day, June 23. (Left) A Ja­pan Mar­itime Self-De­fense Force P-3C sur­veil­lance plane touches down at an air­port in Puerto Princesa on the western pro­vin­cial is­land of Palawan, Philip­pines, fol­low­ing a train­ing flight in a joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cise with the Philip­pines Navy.


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