The election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States is expected to make security in the South China Sea more challenging. It is feared that Trump’s policies, which are inward-looking, will lead to the dominance of the People’s Republic of China in the Asia Pacific becoming unstoppable. At least that is what Japan believes.

Japan’s worries about regional security, especially in Southeast and East Asia, which will be more volatile with the dominance of China, were reflected in a series of discussions held by Japan’s Foreign Ministry. From January 31 to February 2, Japan’s Foreign Ministry invited Kompas journalist and researchers of a number of institutions from Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines to Japan to discuss the issues of security and stability in the South China Sea after the election of Trump as the US President. The discussion presented officials of Japan’s Defense Ministry, senior officials of the office of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a number of former high-ranking officials of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.

Japan is paying a lot of attention to President Trump’s policies on the Asia Pacific. Moreover, one of the first moves by Trump was to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. Actually the TPP is one of the steps to force China to balance its trade with other nations.

“The United States will possibly place trade issues above security issues. Maybe it is too early to predict a definite policy of President Trump, but if we look at the campaign and his inauguration speech, he repeated that US allies will have to pay more for their own security. Therefore, the US will possibly reduce its presence in this region. If this happens, it is likely that China will continue its policy more expansively,” said Director of Second Southeast Asian Division of Japan’s Foreign Ministry, Hirotaka Matsuo.

Then why is Japan so concerned about security and stability in the South China Sea? Japan also has problems with China in the South China Sea. China claims that Senkaku Islands (China calls it Diaoyu), located on the western tip of Japan, is part of its territory.

Japan now feels that it may share a common fate with Southeast Asian countries that have territorial claims over the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and is currently in dispute with China. Japan’s Defense Ministry, for example, recorded a number of Chinese activities in the East China Sea regarded as provocative as it approached its territory in Senkaku.

Deputy Director of the Office of Strategic Intelligence Analysis of the Intelligence Division of Japan’s Defense Ministry Yurie Mitsui disclosed that Chinese coast guard vessels had continue to maintain a presence around Senkaku waters since 2012 and its activities tended to rise in 2016. The vessels had escorted hundreds of Chinese fishing boats over the last year.

The presence of aircraft belonging to the Chinese coast guard in the airspace around Senkaku Islands, according to Japan’s Defense Ministry, also rose drastically in 2016. Japan’s Defense Ministry data show that in June 2016, China’s naval ships entered waters around Senkaku.

China’s aggressiveness, according to Japan, has reached an alarming stage.

“Last year, international court hearings were proposed by the Philippines against Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, and almost all of China’s claims were rejected based on international law. However, China did not care about the international court rulings and continues its unilateral action,” Matsuo said.

Regional stability

Japan has other interests in keeping the South China Sea a peaceful area without any turmoil. This is partly because more than 80 percent of Japan’s oil imports and 90 percent of gas supplies to Japan pass through the waters.

“If the United States puts its trade policy as a priority and reduces its presence in this region, perhaps China will continue its actions,” Matsuo said.

Japan needs more allies to confront China’s aggressiveness in the region. Countries in Southeast Asia are finally seen as strategic allies because they face the same problems in the South China Sea. ASEAN is seen as a major force that can withstand the pace of Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. If ASEAN is able to unite, especially in security issues regarding the South China Sea, Japan believes stability in the area can be maintained despite the aggressiveness of China.

More roles

Stability in the South China Sea, in Japan’s view, should also be of interest to Indonesia, even though it is not involved in a territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

China’s claim with its nine-dash line, which includes the Natuna Islands in its territory, should prompt Indonesia to become more involved in the dynamism of the South China Sea. Even though China acknowledges Indonesia’s sovereignty over the Natuna Islands and exclusive economic zone from the islands, there is no guarantee that China over the next several years will not change its stance.

Japan and Southeast Asian nations, which are currently in disputes in the South China Sea with China, consider the symbolic step of President Joko Widodo to hold a meeting on a warship that sailed in Natuna waters as a bold move in facing the aggressiveness of China. It also includes a policy to sink Chinese boats that illegally enter Natuna territory.

The Indonesian Military’s presence in Natuna and the surrounding waters has become important in facing the dynamics in the South China Sea. Indonesia also needs a modern coast guard to address territorial violations by fishermen from foreign countries, including China.

Finally, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries should not remain passive in facing tensions in the South China Sea.

*This article was published on Kompas Daily, 11 February 2017

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