Japan’s navy has been taking part in military exercises in the South China Sea over the past two months.
The exercises are evidence of increased Japanese activity in an area where Japan has long-term interests, including controlling China’s influence.
In September, a Japanese submarine, helicopter carrier and two destroyer warships explored parts of the South China Sea.
The exercises are part of a two-month program called the Indo Southeast Asia Deployment 2018. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense forces say it is designed to support the “interoperability of our partner navies.”
Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised to work with Vietnam on security in the waterway. That statement followed a beach landing exercise involving forces of both Japan and the Philippines.
Japan does not claim territory in the South China Sea, as do Vietnam and the Philippines. However, the Japanese do want to keep the sea open to international shipping. China’s military buildup in the waterway, then, is a concern.
China has been developing man-made islands in the area for its military. Some of these islets now have runways for large military airplanes. Some are defended with missiles.
Japan is an ally of the United States. The Japanese also have a territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea.
Jeffery Kingston is a history teacher at Temple University in Japan. He told VOA, “Clearly Japan wants to send a message to Beijing that China doesn’t get to do anything it wants in the South China Sea.”
Kingston added that Japan is developing relationships with other nations in East Asia, and the exercises are likely to continue.
“These exercises are going to become the new norm,” he said.
Japanese interests expand in Southeast Asia
Japan started intensifying ties with Southeast Asia about 20 years ago, when China began expanding its own economic relations in the area. Since 1999, Japan has cut back on its development aid to China.
In March, Japan announced plans to lend money to the Philippines for Manila’s first subway system. Japan also has helped rebuild Marawi, a Philippine city partly destroyed by civil war in 2017.
Last year, Japan also promised to work closely with Australia, India and the United States to keep the South China Sea open to shipping.
Stephen Nagy is an associate professor in politics and international studies at the International Christian University in Tokyo. He said Japan wants other countries to agree on international maritime “norms.”
Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines all claim parts of the South China Sea.
In June, Japan offered a $23 million grant to Indonesia for building ports that face the sea. Two years ago, Japan offered loans and grants to the Philippines for naval patrol ships. And last month, a Japanese submarine visited Vietnam.