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South China Sea: If JapanCommences New Naval PatrolsChina Will Respond By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0036/ 2015

We request your assessment of reports that U.S. defense officials are encouraging Japanese patrols in the South China Sea. How do you assess the prospects of this development? Will Japan patrol on its own or jointly with the United States? Will Japan join with the Philippines? How do you expect China to react? Will China announce an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea and step up naval patrols?

ANSWER: Japanese naval patrols in the South China Sea raise the specter of an action-reaction cycle. Japanese naval and air patrols in the South China Sea – on the high seas and passage through the EEZs of littoral states – are perfectly legal under international law. Japan is cooperating with the Philippines and Vietnam to enhance their capacity for maritime security. Prime Minister Abe is promoting a new proactive pacificism for his country in the region. If the Japan-US Defense Guidelines are suitably modified, then Japanese naval patrols in the South China Sea will be a logical outcome. Japan is a leader through ReCAAP (Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia) in antipiracy efforts and its Coast Guard regularly visits regional states. Bilateral cooperation between Japan and any Southeast Asian state is in accord with regional norms. Since the US and Japan are allies, it would be a natural evolution of their relationship for Japan to contribute more practically to general maritime domain awareness, including joint patrols with regional states including the United States. China is very defensive and overly sensitive to the possibility of Japanese naval patrols in the South China Sea. China will likely declare that any increased Japanese role is destabilising. If China declares an ADIZ over the South China Sea it will be even more meaningless than the ADIZ in Northeast Asia. China presently does not have the capacity to enforce it. China has had to acquiesce in Northeast Asia to US intrusions. And China will be unable to prevent US and other foreign military aircraft from challenging an ADIZ in the South China Sea. The US will have an established rotational presence in the Philippines and in northern Australia and be in a position to respond. The bottom line is that many countries are considering a cost imposition strategy in response to China’s unilateral and at times bellicose actions in the South China Sea.

These countries see themselves as reacting to China’s initiatives. Of course China views this from an opposite perspective. China has already stepped up its naval presence through an increase in maritime law enforcement vessels and more frequent and larger naval patrols. China would most likely stage some major exercise for propaganda purposes. If Japan commences new naval patrols in the South China Sea tensions will rise because the Chinese military has the following policy: if a country does ”1” against Chinese interests, China will respond with 1.5; if a country does “2” against Chinese interests, China will respond with 2.5

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email:

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