Japan and the Philippines have carried out their first ever bilateral naval exercises. The location? The South China Sea, one of the most bitterly contested waterways in the world, through which vast quantities of maritime traffic pass and under which substantial energy resources are thought to lie.
It appears that China’s well-publicised land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea have tilted their regional competitors towards decisive action. Whilst the Japanese-Philippine naval drills do not provide an existential threat to the Chinese, they are heavily symbolic.
Japan has long been distrusted in the East Asia region, primarily because of its aggressive wartime invasion and occupation of most of the continent. Indeed, the Philippines was overrun by the Imperial Japanese Army between December 1941 and May 1942. A large defence force – which included American combat units under Douglas MacArthur – was unable to prevent a swift Japanese victory. More than 25,000 were killed on the defensive side.
Despite a fierce guerrilla campaign, Japan occupied the Philippines for the next three years. As in the other countries it invaded, this occupation often took a rather brutal form; arbitrary arrests, executions and the use of ‘comfort women’ proliferated, increasing the hatred felt by the Filipinos towards the Japanese. These actions have not been forgotten and the two countries have experienced tense relations since the end of WWII, despite having a mutual ally in the USA.
That Japan and the Philippines now appear willing to set aside their historical grievances and provide a bulwark against Chinese expansionism is a hugely significant step. Japan is seeking to revise its constitution to allow greater freedom to undertake military operations. Simultaneously, the USA has mooted the possibility of sending naval vessels and aircraft to the South China Sea in order to prevent a restriction on navigation.
At the same time, Vietnam – invaded by Japan during WWII and a former American enemy – has begun its own land reclamation projects around the island’s it controls in the region. These actions are sending a clear signal to Beijing: we are ready to unite and oppose your unilateral shifting of the geostrategic balance of power.
The South China Sea has long been seen as a potential flashpoint in East Asia. Yet, because of the many enmities between the regional states – and the failure of ASEAN to achieve a consensus on the issue – nothing has been done to prevent tensions rising. As in Ukraine, where Russia has been getting away with blatant war-mongering and undermining the sovereignty of another state, China has been similarly bullish in staking its territorial claims.
Whilst the Chinese actions are not having the same immediate and devastating effect as those of Russia in Ukraine, the potential future ramifications are massive. With the US ‘pivot’ to East Asia in progress, and smaller states willing to overlook issues of history to side with Japan, a dangerous balance of power and hedging of bets is underway.
Watch this space; we have not heard the last of the South China Sea dispute.