Japan weighs in on South China Sea dispute, adding to pressure on Beijing

Permanent mission to UN sends note saying China’s territorial baselines on some islands and reefs fail to satisfy conditions in United Nations conventionIt also accuses China of restricting freedom of navigation and overflight

Laura Zhou

Laura Zhou in Beijing

Published: 7:51pm, 21 Jan, 2021 SCMP

Japan’s diplomatic note made reference to China’s protests against the overflight of Japanese aircraft at Mischief Reef. Photo: AP
Japan’s diplomatic note made reference to China’s protests against the overflight of Japanese aircraft at Mischief Reef. Photo: AP

Japan’s diplomatic note made reference to China’s protests against the overflight of Japanese aircraft at Mischief Reef. Photo: AP

Japan has joined a battle of diplomatic notes over the South China Sea dispute, adding to pressure on Beijing over its expansive claims in the strategically important waterway.

In a note verbale – a type of diplomatic communication – sent on Tuesday, Japan’s permanent mission to the United Nations said China’s “drawing of territorial sea baselines … on relevant islands and reefs in the South China Sea” failed to satisfy conditions set out in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

It also accused China of restricting freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.Beijing’s claims to most of the waterway were rejected in 2016 by a tribunal in The Hague that ruled several of the land features were “low-tide elevations” without territorial waters.

“China has not accepted this [2016] award, and has asserted that it has ‘sovereignty’ in sea and airspace surrounding and above those maritime features found to be low-tide elevations,” Japan said in the note addressing UN secretary general Antonio Guterres.

“As a matter of fact, China protests the overflight of Japanese aircraft in the surrounding Mischief Reef and attempts to restrict the freedom of overflight in the South China Sea,” it said.https://www.youtube.com/embed/IbmpAk0zrbM?rel=0&mute=1&playsinline=1&frameborder=0&autoplay=0&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.scmp.com&embed_config=%7B%22relatedChannels%22%3A%5B%22UC4SUWizzKc1tptprBkWjX2Q%22%5D%2C%22adsConfig%22%3A%7B%22adTagParameters%22%3A%7B%22iu%22%3A%22%2F8134%2Fscmp%2Fweb%2Fchina_diplomacydefence%2Farticle%2Finstream1%22%7D%7D%2C%22nonPersonalizedAd%22%3Atrue%7D&enablejsapi=1&widgetid=1Washington’s hardened position on Beijing’s claims in South China Sea heightens US-China tensions

Washington’s hardened position on Beijing’s claims in South China Sea heightens US-China tensions

While Tokyo has previously urged Beijing to recognise the tribunal ruling, it is rare for Japan – which has its own territorial disputes with China in the East China Sea – to openly push back over its activities in the South China Sea, a potential military flashpoint between China and the US because of its geostrategic location.DAILY, MONDAY TO FRIDAYChina at a Glance NewsletterSIGN UP NOWBy registering, you agree to our T&C and Privacy PolicyThe note was issued hours before a high-level consultation on maritime affairs between China and Japan during which Japanese diplomats lodged a protest against the growing presence of Chinese coastguard vessels near the Senkaku Islands, according to Stars and Stripes. Known as the Diaoyus in China, the islands are controlled by Japan but also claimed by Beijing and Taipei.

China’s two-pronged strategy to grind Japan down over disputed islands3 Jan 2021

Chen Xiangmiao, an associate research fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan, said the timing of the note was significant.

“This could be a way for Japan to raise the stakes in its [East China Sea] negotiations with China,” Chen said. “As Japan and the US are close allies, a hardened stance by Japan on the South China Sea will be welcomed by the US, whether it’s the Donald Trump administration or the Joe Biden administration.”

Japanese diplomats reportedly lodged a protest against the growing presence of Chinese coastguard vessels near the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyus in China. Photo: Kyodo

Japanese diplomats reportedly lodged a protest against the growing presence of Chinese coastguard vessels near the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyus in China. Photo: Kyodo

Japan’s diplomatic note follows similar submissions urging Beijing to comply with the landmark 2016 ruling from the US, Australia, Britain, France and Germany, as well as rival claimants Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, the nation that took the case to The Hague.

“The addition of Japan to the international legal coalition adds weight to the 2016 tribunal ruling,” said Yoichiro Sato, a professor of Indo-Pacific security with Ritsumeikan Asia-Pacific University in Japan.

South China Sea: the dispute that could start a military conflict11 Aug 2020

But unlike the US and its allies – which rejected what Beijing calls its historic rights to the South China Sea – Japan’s diplomatic note mentioned China’s obstruction of freedom of navigation and overflight only around submerged features and low-tide elevations that are not deemed to have territorial waters. Observers said that could have been an attempt to avoid pushing China too far.

Japan also stopped short of going into detail about these features, making a specific reference only to Mischief Reef, Sato noted.

Part of the disputed Spratly Islands, China has occupied Mischief Reef and has a military base there after turning it into an artificial island. The reef is also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam.

The South China Sea dispute explained
The South China Sea dispute explained

03:23

The South China Sea dispute explained

The South China Sea dispute explained

Sato said the dispute with Beijing in the East China Sea may complicate Tokyo’s position in the South China Sea.

“Japan’s reluctance is most focused on a fear that its involvement in the South China Sea may result in China’s retaliation in the East China Sea over the Senkaku Islands,” Sato said.

He added that the presence of Chinese coastguard vessels near the Senkakus “has convinced Japan that the growing Chinese assertiveness in both seas has common roots in nationalism and expansionist intent”.

However, Chen said Beijing was unlikely to change its position on the South China Sea despite the increasing international pressure.

From our archivehttps://www.youtube.com/smart_embed?channels=UC4SUWizzKc1tptprBkWjX2Q&enablejsapi=1&origin=https://www.scmp.com&playsinline=1&mute=1&block_videos=IbmpAk0zrbM,8eqtl0ym1p8&embed_config=%7B%22relatedChannels%22%3A%5B%22UC4SUWizzKc1tptprBkWjX2Q%22%5D%2C%22adsConfig%22%3A%7B%22adTagParameters%22%3A%7B%22iu%22%3A%22%2F8134%2Fscmp%2Fweb%2Fchina_diplomacydefence%2Farticle%2Finstream2%22%7D%7D%2C%22nonPersonalizedAd%22%3Atrue%7Dhttps://a56bf2a9cd3787c05c380b6326093492.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.htmlThis article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Japan adds its voice to South China Sea dispute

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