Japan has been conducting its own “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea “to warn China” but in a cautious manner, Japan’s largest newspaper reported.
The Yomiuri Shimbun quoted unnamed government sources as saying that Japanese naval ships “sailed through waters near the artificial islands and reefs claimed by China in the South China Sea” on at least two occasions, in March and August last year.
“The Maritime Self-Defense Force (Japanese Navy) operations started in March 2021 under the administration of then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga,” it said. Suga stood down in October.
A senior Defense Ministry official told the paper that the operations were “meant to warn China, which is distorting international law, to protect freedom of navigation, and the law and order of the sea.”
However, despite being similar to the freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) conducted by the U.S. Navy, the Japanese ships were only sailing in the international waters and did not enter China’s territorial waters, the Yomiuri reported, adding that these operations were conducted “on such occasions as traveling to or from joint drills with other navies, or deployment to the Middle East.”
“Territorial waters” are the sea areas that lie within 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) from a country’s coast and China demands that foreign warships ask for permission for so-called “innocent passage.”
Japan is a treaty ally of the U.S., which retains more than 50,000 troops on Japanese soil. But Mark Valencia, adjunct senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS), said: “These are not FONOPs à la the U.S.”
“They do not challenge China's territorial sea regime nor its sovereignty claims to low-tide features like Mischief Reef like the U.S. FONOPs do,” he said.
“They are an exercise of freedom of the high seas that is not opposed by China.”
Mischief Reef is one of the South China Sea features that China has developed into artificial islands in recent years despite protests from some other claimants including the Philippines and Vietnam.
Beijing also claims territorial waters around those artificial islands though these claims have no basis in international law.
Commitment to an open sea
Australian Rear Adm. (retd) James Goldrick, a prominent maritime affairs analyst, said many U.S. FONOPs in the South China Sea were about warship passage rights without prior notification within self-claimed territorial waters, not only by China but also Vietnam and the Philippines.
But the Japanese effort was “about freedom of naval/maritime operations rather than freedom of navigation” or supporting the U.S. FONOPs, he said.
“The South China Sea is not and should not become a closed sea,” Goldrick said.
Alessio Palatano, Professor at King’s College London and an expert in Japanese naval history and strategy, said recent operations show “Japan has been exercising its compliance to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in a way that previously it was very careful to avoid.”
“This is a step up which brings Japanese behavior much closer to other major maritime powers. Britain and France regularly sail in ways in which at times challenge excessive forms of maritime claims,” Palatano told RFA.
“It’s clear political signaling that shows that Japan is becoming proficient in using its naval capabilities to create a wide-ranging set of signaling options in communicating its political disagreements with Chinese behavior.”
“So long as the Japanese continue on such a nuanced approach, this is very welcome,” he said.
Meanwhile Valencia from the Chinese state think tank NISCSS warned that even though the Japanese operations did not raise alarm, “if they actually did challenge China's territorial sea regime or sovereignty claims by entering its claimed territorial waters or violating the innocent passage regime, then China might well retaliate.”
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.