“Freedom of navigation strategy” meaningless

Shift toward “porcupine strategy” in counteroffensive against China
Interview with Retired JMSDF Rear Admiral Sumihiko Kawamura, former vice commandant of the Joint Staff College


 At the recent Ise-Shima Summit, the G7 leaders adopted a declaration which states in part: “We are concerned about the situation in the East and South China Seas, and emphasize the fundamental importance of peaceful management and settlement of disputes.” How must Japan expand its maritime security measures going forward? Retired Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force(JMSDF) Rear Admiral Sumihiko Kawamura, the former vice commandant of the Joint Staff College, which trains general officers and high-ranking staff for the Land, Maritime, and Air branches of the Self Defense Force, granted an interview to this newspaper in which he analyzes China’s maritime strategy and capabilities as well as Japan’s defense posture.

China’s construction of artificial islands on reefs and claiming territorial rights on the surrounding waters is a violation of the International Law of the Sea. However, the law of the sea recognizes territorial rights if effective control is maintained for a sufficient period of time, and China has manipulated this to their advantage.


 Indeed, if other nations ignore the violations, then territorial rights are recognized. However, if another nation protests and lodges complaints and these complaints are recognized by a body such as the Permanent Court of Arbitrationムit becomes a point of dispute, and effective control is not recognized. The Philippines has lodged a complaint with the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague over China’s seizure of their territorial holdings of Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal, and this act is meaningful.

 In the case of the Senkaku Islands, they had been under Japan’s complete control without any protests since their incorporation into Japanese territory in 1895, and Japan’s territorial rights have already been recognized under international law.

Is the US Navy’s strategy of “freedom of navigation”ムmilitary vessels passing within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islandsムmeaningful in this sense?

 The Obama administration’s strategy of freedom of navigation is intended to be a gesture indicating they do not recognize the seas around the artificial islands as territorial waters, but I think this is almost entirely meaningless. What the US is currently doing is called “innocent passage.” Innocent passage refers to passage through a nation’s territorial waters by another nation’s military vessels within 12 nautical miles of the shore, taking only the minimum of action necessary and without causing any alarm or intimidation. The passage of military vessels is permitted so long as it is innocent passage. According to the statements by US Department of Defense, US Navy vessels are making innocent passage. That is to say, their actions imply that they recognize the area as Chinese territorial waters, which has the opposite of the intended effect.

What countermeasures should be taken?

 They must be actions that are not innocent passage, namely circumnavigating the artificial islands in military vessels, stopping, dropping anchor, and launching aircraft.

 That said, it is no use leaving it up to the US alone. Any military response must be done jointly, with participation by Japan and other nations around the world such as Australia. What I mean to say is that China is currently explaining the military actions of the US to its citizens as the US unilaterally disturbing the peace in the South China Sea, and it is using this to stir up domestic discontent. Therefore, rather than the US acting alone, there must be multinational action to make the people of China understand that it is the international community as a whole which stands in opposition.

 Furthermore, a standoff solely between the militaries of China and the US creates the risk of a conflict breaking out in the area. On May 17th, two Chinese Navy fighter jets conducted an unusually close interception, coming to within 15 meters of a US Navy reconnaissance plane patrolling international airspace over the South China Sea, but this was likely a retaliatory measure against the US military. If military vessels from other nations are involved in the freedom of navigation strategy, then not even China will be able to do anything about it.

Regarding the point of Japan’s participation being necessary, security legislation is a significant factor.

 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is doing things that China is too stunned to do anything about.

 He formulated a new National Defense Program Outline in December 2013. It worked out plans for bolstering the defenses of Okinawa and the Nansei Islands, and the decision to deploy anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles in the Okinawa archipelago was made in response.

 In the new US-Japan defense guidelines released on April 27th of last year as well, it was clearly stipulated that Japan will take the lead in defense operations in its surrounding airspace and territorial waters, as well as the avenues of approach to its airspace and territorial waters, with the US military providing support and assistance for Self Defense Force operations.

 What does this mean? Japan is taking the “A2/AD” (Anti-Access/Area Denial) strategy China is currently using and using it against China. This is a change of course from the past concept of a non-aggressive defense. Mobile anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles will be deployed on the islands like a porcupine, forming a solid defense. Even China would not dare to approach. While they use the modest phrasing of “maintaining air superiority and supremacy of the seas,” what that means is “interdicting both aircraft and ships.” By way of comparison, even the aircraft carriers of the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet keep their distance from China’s hundreds of anti-ship ballistic missiles. Consequently, Japan has demonstrated its strong intent to defend Okinawa by itself.

 China would surely be surprised to learn that Prime Minister Abe intends to implement a Japanese version of A2/AD. They will interdict submarines and aircraft as well. This means that China’s navy will not be able to leave the East China Sea as it likes.