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News Navigator: How will Japan respond to the standoff in the South China Sea?

The United States, China and nearby countries are in a continuing standoff over territorial rights in the South China Sea. The Mainichi answers common questions readers may have about how Japan will respond to the standoff.

    Question: What is the source of the trouble between the United States and China?

    Answer: China claims nearly all of the South China Sea as its territory and has created artificial islands by reclaiming reefs at the Spratly- Islands. In October last year, the U.S. sent an Aegis destroyer to sail within 12 nautical miles, or about 22 kilometers, of the islands in a show of rejection of China's claim of the area and creation of the artificial islands. Called a "freedom of navigation" operation, the U.S. plans to continue sending such missions to the area.

    Q: What will Japan do?

    A: In November Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told U.S. President Barack Obama that he supported the U.S.'s operation. Regarding the dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to the South China Sea, Abe said that he would consider such action while watching for the effect of the situation on Japan's national security.

    Q: Will Japan send the SDF?

    A: There are no concrete plans to do so. The U.S. military is hoping for Japan to participate in patrols in the area, but currently Japan does not have the resources to send forces there. The SDF is already busy keeping watch around the East China Sea where the Senkaku Islands are situated and sending ships to stop piracy off the coast of Somalia.

    Furthermore, the South China Sea is far from Japan, and SDF ships would not be able to perform effectively unless they had a refueling base. A Ministry of Defense official says that an SDF mission in the area is "not realistic." However, Abe has not ruled out the possibility of future missions, so whether it happens is dependent on what the administration decides.

    Q: Wouldn't the new national security laws that expanded the activities of the SDF enable a mission in the South China Sea?

    A: After the laws go into effect in March this year, Japan will be able to exercise the right to collective self-defense in a limited way, expand its mission in United Nations peacekeeping operations, and provide more support to foreign militaries. However, unless the government recognizes an armed conflict between the U.S. and China as something "greatly affecting Japan's safety," it seems unlikely Japan will use the laws to send the SDF to the South China Sea. Japan's current stance is to actively engage in joint exercises between the SDF and the U.S. military and to display to China the Japanese-U.S. presence in the region.

    Q: Will Japan cooperate with countries around the South China Sea?

    A: Japan is strengthening relations with nations that are contesting territorial rights with China in the area. In June last year, Japan conducted its first joint search-and-rescue drills with the Philippines, and in November Japan reached agreement with Vietnam to hold the first SDF drills in Vietnam waters and to allow the SDF to dock at Cam Ranh Bay in central Vietnam. It is planned for SDF ships to use the dock on their trips to and from their anti-pirate missions. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force also docks in Changi, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and is strengthening ties with those countries through military drills and other means. (Answers by Akira Murao, Political News Department)

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