Arms Transfers and Warnings in South China Sea Dispute
On the final day of the APEC summit in Manila, Japan and the Philippines announced a formal accord for maritime security cooperation, focused mainly on equipment transfers. The news of a general agreement was followed immediately by specifics, with media reporting that Philippine President Benigno Aquino has asked Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for several large coast guard patrol vessels for use in the dispute with China over claims in the South China Sea.
Japanese yards are already building 10 patrol vessels for the Philippines in a deal financed by Minister Abe's government, but at 40 meters in length they are not sufficient for all purposes; Manila is said to want additional vessels of 100 meters.
In the past, Japan has also donated patrol vessels to Indonesia and Vietnam, both of which share the Philippines' concerns over Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea.
Japan has only recently loosened restrictions on its military engagement abroad. Under the terms of its constitution, written with American supervision at the end of World War II, Japan has only been permitted to use its armed forces for the purposes of domestic self defense. In a major victory for Minister Abe's government, a bill passed in September allows the use military force abroad, within limits.
While his administration has worked to reduce restrictions on arms transfers as well, roadblocks to military exports still exist in Japan and government sources indicate that these will have to be adjusted to permit the additional vessel deliveries to the Philippines.
In addition to seagoing units, the Japanese are said to be considering the delivery of either three used P3-C Orion or three TC-90 King Air aircraft for use in patrolling Philippine maritime claims.
Separately, the war of words over Chinese claims in the Spratly Islands continued November 19, as Wu Shengli, commander of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), called on the United States to stop its "provocations" in the South China Sea.
In comments at a meeting in Beijing with U.S. Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Wu said that “the Chinese navy has closely monitored the provocative actions of the United States and issued several warnings, while exercising enormous restraint.”
“If the United States carries out repeated provocations despite China’s opposition, we have the ability to defend our national sovereignty and security,” he added.
Chinese officials have asserted that in addition to sovereignty over the islands they have constructed in the Spratlys, including the waters out to 12 miles from shore, they possess the “right and ability” to forcibly seize islands “illegally” occupied by other countries such as the Philippines.
In comments at the APEC summit in Manila, President Barack Obama called on Beijing to halt its land reclamation program in the Spratlys, and voiced support for an arbitration process at the Hague initiated by the Philippines.
U.S. forces have recently conducted transits of Chinese claims in the Spratlys with close approaches, including one pass by the guided missile destroyer Lassen and a fly-by near the islands by a B-52 strategic bomber. U.S. defense officials have indicated that American forces will maintain a regular presence in the islands going forward.
Video: P8-C Poseidon flyover of disputed islands