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Taro Kono, Japan's Defence Minister, speaks at the Doha Forum in Qatar. Photo: AFP

Japan’s defence chief hits out at Beijing on South China Sea, military build-up

  • Taro Kono, seen as a potential successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, made the remarks days ahead of a meeting with Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe
  • His comments serve as a reminder for Beijing to play by the international rules even as ties with Tokyo warm, according to one analyst
Japan’s Defence Minister Taro Kono has criticised China for its actions in the contested South China Sea and waters close to Japan, days before visiting Beijing to meet his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe.

“China is engaging in unilateral and coercive attempts to alter the status quo based on its own assertions that are incompatible with the existing international order,” Kono on Sunday at the Doha Forum, an international conference in Qatar.

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The senior politician – who previously served as foreign minister and has been touted as a potential successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – added that Japan “is also concerned about China’s rapid enhancement of its military power without transparency, including its nuclear and missile capabilities”, public broadcaster NHK reported.

“The rule of law, which is of critical importance to global stability and security, is a value shared by the international community, including China,” he said, adding that countries cannot be permitted to expand their spheres of influence by force and “aggressors must be forced to pay the cost”.

Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe pictured in October. Photo: AP

Hiromi Murakami, a professor of international relations at the Tokyo campus of Temple University, admitted to being “rather surprised” at the tone of the minister’s comments.

“Coming so soon after security talks between Japan and India, I can only see this as sending a reminder to China that it cannot do whatever it wants, wherever it wants,” she said, referring to how the two Asian democracies agreed last month to step-up bilateral security cooperation.

“Japan has to collaborate with other countries in the region if it wants to resist China – I think ‘contain China’ is too strong a term – and Tokyo is working hard to do the same with India.”

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Chinese state media has not commented on Kono’s remarks, but analysts said Beijing would doubtless be paying close attention. Recent tensions between the US and China have forced Beijing to focus on boosting ties with its neighbours, with Chinese President Xi Jinping expected to make a state visit to Japan next April, amid improving bilateral ties that have historically been marred by disputes over wartime history and territory – such as Tokyo’s control of a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea which Beijing claims as the Diaoyu Islands, but are called the Senkaku Islands in Japan.
Ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands is a point of contention between China and Japan. Photo: Kyodo

Jun Okumura, an analyst at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, agreed that Kono’s comments were “unusual”, but he pointed out that they were completely in line with Tokyo’s positions on the issues as laid out in its annual defence and security white paper published earlier this year.

Japan has called on Beijing to adhere to the principles of international law on the question of islands and atolls in the South China Sea, a number of which Beijing has unilaterally claimed and built military facilities upon. Other regional players – such as the Philippines and Vietnam – have made rival claims.

Okumura suggested that while Beijing might want to “soothe things” over, Japan could be seeing this as an opportunity to make its point and “be a little bit more aggressive”.

“Just as long as they don’t push too far and it leads to escalation, of course.”

Tensions on the Korean peninsula, amid Pyongyang’s recent missile tests, will inevitably be discussed at the meeting. Photo: KCNA via Reuters
Kono, who is expected to arrive in Beijing on Wednesday, is likely to raise the issue of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s ambitious infrastructure plan to boost global trade, and reiterate Japan’s support for some of the projects that are presently being discussed.
North Korea will inevitably come up, Okumura said, with Japan likely to repeat calls for China to cooperate with efforts to get Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, particularly given resurgent tensions on the Korean peninsula in recent weeks.
Another possible topic of discussion is the creation of a military hotline to stop accidental air or maritime clashes developing into more serious incidents, as well as Chinese vessels taking part in naval reviews with Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force.

“The point is that they are talking with each other and that these meetings are now becoming more routine,” Okumura said. “That is something that everyone can fall back on.”