On paper, all of the world’s seven richest nations warned last month against militarization of the contested South China Sea, where Beijing is building up small islets for combat aircraft and radar systems.
But analysts believe it was Japan that pushed the Group of Seven nations for the warning as it vies with China for political influence around Asia.
Japan is concerned
“I think in recent times Japan has been trying to make use of various regional and international forums to, for lack of a better word, publicize China’s military expansion and its associated activities,” said Collin Koh, maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “So I think in this context using the G7 is a particularly timely platform.”
The G7, which includes Japan as well as the United States and several Western European countries, expressed “concern” about the East and South China Seas in a leadership communique from the May 26-27 event in Italy. The G7 is “strongly opposed to any unilateral actions that could increase tensions," it said, and "we urge all parties to pursue demilitarization of disputed features.”
China is engaged in militarization of the South China Sea
China, though not named in the statement, leads in militarization of the resource-packed, 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea that runs from its southern coast to Borneo. Reclamation work estimated at 3,200 acres has expanded islets in the Paracel and Spratly chains to support naval and air force facilities.
Japan has a particular stake in the dispute. It does not claim the sea but vies with Beijing for alliances with Southeast Asian countries that do have claims.
Japan and China separately dispute a tract of the East China Sea, which lies east of Shanghai. Tokyo controls the disputed area and eight uninhabited islands. China passed ships near the islands on more than 30 days last year to assert its claims, in some cases prompting Japan to scramble planes.
China further resents Japan over what it sees as unsettled issues from its World War II-era occupation of Chinese territory.
Japan wants to be a player in the South China Sea
“The Japanese prime minister is very steadfast on the position that Japan needs to have a principled position in the South China Sea,” said Yun Sun, senior associate with the East Asia Program under Washington-based think tank the Stimson Center.
With the United States taking a low-key approach on the issue for now, she said, “I think Japan is probably the most concerned about what China is doing.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was “leading discussions” at the G7 meeting on “maritime security,” among other issues, the website of his country’s foreign ministry says.
“When China was mentioned in the discussions, Prime Minister Abe stated the importance of relations with China and also that the G7 should urge China to play a constructive role in the international community,” the ministry says.
US backing off for now
Japanese officials may be especially worried because U.S. President Donald Trump has sidelined the South China Sea issue since taking office in January, said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
Tokyo and Washington have historically worked together on checking China’s expansion, but Trump now wants China’s help containing North Korea and is considered unlikely to rile Beijing as they cooperate.
Japanese leaders have used forums under the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to issue "warnings" and senior-level meetings in Europe “to air those views and canvass for support for its cause,” Koh said.
China upset with G7 warning against militarization
China called the G7’s statement “irresponsible.” It probably resents the G7 for reviving the issue, Huang said.
“Basically the Chinese wanted this issue to just die down. So if G7 did not mention anything about the South China Sea, that would be the best case scenario for China,” Huang said. “I think China believes they are doing something about it, and it’s not necessary to bring about this issue at this moment.”
Since a world arbitration court in The Hague ruled last year that Beijing lacks a legal basis to its claim over about 95 percent of the South China Sea, the Communist government has sought talks with four Southeast Asian countries whose exclusive economic zones overlap waters that Beijing calls its own.
Specifically, it has offered development aid to the Philippines, discussed maritime cooperation with Vietnam and pumped money into Brunei and Malaysia. China and ASEAN agreed in May to a framework for a code of conduct that would eventually prevent mishaps in the sea.
Partly in response to China, committees in Japan’s ruling party have drafted a revision to the Self-Defense Forces Law to give the military more powers than just to be a self-defense force as established after World War II.
“We do see actually some signs of easing of tensions, but I think Japan wouldn’t want people to forget that while all these negotiations are taking place, the fact is that China has been continuing with the buildup,” Koh said.
The G7 leaders added in their statement they want a “peaceful settlement of maritime disputes through diplomatic and legal means, including arbitration.”