Defense of Japan 2021: Key Points of the White Paper

Defense of Japan 2021, the annual white paper of the Ministry of Defense of Japan, was approved by the Cabinet and released on July 13, 2021. Beginning his foreword to the white paper, Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo emphasizes the Japanese government’s concerns about Chinese activities in the East and South China Seas. He states:

“China has continued its unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas. China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels are sighted almost daily in the contiguous zone surrounding the Senkaku Islands, an inherent part of the territory of Japan, and repeatedly intrude into Japan’s territorial waters. Furthermore, there have also been incidents of CCG vessels approaching Japanese fishing boats while intruding into Japanese territorial waters, further making the situation serious.”

The China Coast Guard Bureau was established in 2013 through the integration of four maritime law enforcement agencies. In July 2018, the Bureau was transferred to the People’s Armed Police Force under the unified command of the Central Military Commission. The Bureau manages the North, East and South China Sea with more than 200 vessels and aircraft. 

In February 2021, China entered into force the China Coast Guard Law (CCG Law). The CCG Law includes a number of provisions that in their ambiguity give cause for concern. Article 3, for example, does not give a clear definition of the “maritime areas under Chinese jurisdiction” [and the airspace above them], while the following articles also lack clear definitions in terms of how the measures would be implemented: 

  • Article 21: Measures such as forcible eviction may be taken against illegal acts committed by foreign military vessels, etc.
  • Article 22: In cases of illegal infringement on sovereignty committed by foreign organizations or individuals in the seas, all necessary measures, including the use of weapons, may be taken.
  • Article 25: Provisional maritime warning areas may be set and the passage and stay of vessels and people may be restricted or prohibited.
  • Article 83: The CCG should execute missions, including defense operations, based on relevant laws, such as the National Defense Law and the People’s Armed Police Law, and orders from the Central Military Commission.

Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo

In his foreword to the white paper, Defense Minister Kishi expressed serious concerns about the provisions of the CCG Law: 

“The CCG Law includes problematic provisions in terms of their inconsistency with international law. Sources of inconsistency include, among others, ambiguity as to geographical areas [to which] the CCG Law applies and how the rules governing the use of weapons are implemented. The CCG Law must not be allowed to infringe on the legitimate interests of the relevant countries including Japan. Furthermore, the raising of tensions in the East China Sea and other sea areas is completely unacceptable.”

Defense of Japan 2021 has attracted attention for what it says about the strategic importance of Taiwan, an issue which the annual white paper addresses for the first time. It states:

“As China rapidly enhances its military power, changes in the military power balance between the United States and China may possibly affect the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region. It is necessary to pay greater attention to the military trends of the two countries in areas such as the South China Sea and Taiwan.”

The white paper also makes reference to the testimony of the Commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command at a Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on March 9, 2021 indicating that the military balance in the Indo-Pacific is becoming more unfavorable for the United States and its allies, and that they are “accumulating risk that may embolden China to unilaterally change the status quo.” At that hearing, Admiral Philip S. Davidson had stated:

“I worry that they’re [China] accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rules-based international order, which they’ve long said that they want to do by 2050. I’m worried about them moving that target closer,” he continued. “Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before then. And I think the threat is manifest [will manifest itself] during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.”

Based on such concerns, the paper concludes that the stability of the situation around Taiwan should be focused on “with a sense of crisis more than ever before.”

● China has further intensified military activities around Taiwan including Chinese aircrafts’ entering the southwestern airspace of Taiwan. In the meantime, the United States has demonstrated a clear stance of supporting Taiwan in military aspects, such as transits by US vessels through the Taiwan Strait and weapon sales. Stabilizing the situation surrounding Taiwan is important for Japan’s security and the stability of the international community. Therefore, it is necessary that we pay close attention to the situation with a sense of crisis more than ever before.

● The overall military balance between China and Taiwan is tilting to China’s favor, and the gap appears to be growing year by year. Attention should be paid to trends such as the strengthening of Chinese and Taiwanese forces, the sale of weapons to Taiwan by the United States, and Taiwan’s own development of its main military equipment.

On the same day the paper was released, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian responded. He said:

“Recently, the Japanese side has been making issues out of China, grossly interfering in China’s internal affairs, making groundless accusations about China’s normal national defense and military activities, pointing fingers at China’s legitimate maritime activities and playing up the so-called ‘China threat.’ This is extremely wrong and irresponsible. China deplores and rejects this.” He continued, “China never allows interference in the Taiwan question in any form by any country. China must and will be reunified. A complete reunification of China is most beneficial to regional peace and stability.”

Lijian also criticized the so-called FOIP (Free and Open Indo-Pacific), saying, “The ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’ aims to stoke bloc confrontation and create cliques for geopolitical games. It marks the comeback of a Cold War mentality and retrogression and should be swept into the dustbin of history.”

In the white paper, Defense Minister Kishi says of the FOIP:

“Japan is promoting the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) vision, based on the concept that achieving a free and open rules-based order will enhance peace and prosperity across the entire region and throughout the world. The MOD/SDF will further contribute to the peace and stability of the region and the international community through active cooperation with countries that share Japan’s vision of the FOIP, including not only the United States as our ally, but also Australia, India, European countries including the United Kingdom, France and Germany, as well as Canada and New Zealand.”

On July 11, 2021, before the white paper’s release and the response of China, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken issued an official statement titled “Fifth Anniversary of the Arbitral Tribunal Ruling on the South China Sea.”

Blinken says in the statement:

“Nowhere is the rules-based maritime order under greater threat than in the South China Sea. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues to coerce and intimidate Southeast Asian coastal states, threatening freedom of navigation in this critical global throughway. […] We call on the PRC to abide by its obligations under international law, cease its provocative behavior, and take steps to reassure the international community that it is committed to the rules-based maritime order that respects the rights of all countries, big and small.”

This autumn, leaders of the world will come together at summit meetings such as APEC and the East Asia Summit (EAS) to discuss the world economy, trade and regional security issues. What will happen at these meetings?

At the last EAS summit meeting, Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide stated clearly that activities which violate Japan’s sovereignty continue in the East China Sea and that activities such as launching ballistic missiles and militarizing terrain in the South China Sea also continue. Although the leader of Japan’s ally the United States the former President Donald Trump did not attend the East Asia Summit even once during his administration (sending the Vice President, Secretary of State or National Security Advisor in his place), by contrast his successor, President Joe Biden, said at the special virtual APEC summit meeting on July 17, 2021 that the United States would remain deeply engaged in the region for generations to come.

It is to be hoped that constructive discussions on the South China Sea and the rules-based maritime order will be held at the upcoming summits and that a shared “sense of crisis” will lead to positive outcomes for Japan, the region and the international community.

SANO Kentaro is a freelance journalist.

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