China strongly warned a high-level Japanese official around late June that Tokyo should not send its Self-Defense Forces to join U.S. operations that test the freedom of navigation in the disputed South China Sea, diplomatic sources said Saturday.
Japan will “cross a red line” if SDF vessels take part in U.S. freedom of navigation operations, Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua told the Japanese official, the sources said, adding that the ambassador even hinted at military action if Japan crosses the line.
The warning was issued just as an international tribunal was about to rule on conflicting claims in those waters.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled July 12 that China’s sweeping claims to most of the South China Sea, which overlap with those of the Philippines and other neighboring countries, have no legal basis. China has rejected the ruling, while the United States and Japan have called on Beijing to respect the decision.
China is expected to continue warning against Japan’s interference with the issue, including when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will likely meet Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on the fringes of a ministerial meeting being arranged among Japan, China and South Korea for later this month.
The Japanese government has no plans to join the freedom of navigation operations, in which the United States since October has sent warships near artificial islands that China has built in the South China Sea.
But it has left room for sending SDF ships to the disputed waters to protect U.S. ships under new security laws that have expanded SDF roles overseas.
Japanese officials have said Japan can dispatch the SDF as long as the mission will contribute to the country’s defense and will not violate restrictions imposed by Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution.
According to the sources, Cheng told the high-level Japanese official in Tokyo that Japan should not take part in a “joint military action with U.S. forces that is aimed at excluding China in the South China Sea.”
He also said China “will not concede on sovereignty issues and is not afraid of military provocations.”
The comments were apparently aimed at preventing Tokyo from interfering in the territorial row in the South China Sea, where Japan has no direct claims.
The Japanese official told the ambassador that Japan has no plans to join the U.S. operations, but strongly criticized China’s construction of outposts in the waters for military purposes, the sources said.
The exchange took place amid already heightened bilateral tensions sparked by a territorial dispute between China and Japan over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which China calls Diaoyu.
On June 9, a Chinese navy ship sailed into waters just outside Japanese territorial waters around the islands, leading Japan to lodge a protest against China’s unprecedented move.
Then Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki summoned Cheng to the ministry and told the ambassador that Japan would take “necessary actions” if Chinese naval ships entered the territorial waters—possibly indicating that is the “red line” for Japan and that Japan would mobilize its Maritime Self-Defense Force in the event China crossed the line.
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