Japan, Vietnam agree South China Sea ruling must be observed as China digs in heels

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives for the 11th Asem Summit in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, on July 15, 2016.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives for the 11th Asem Summit in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, on July 15, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) -  Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed with his Vietnamese counterpart on Friday (July 15) that an arbitration court’s decision this week on the South China Sea must be observed, even as China told Japan to stop “hyping up and interfering in” the issue. 

The court in The Hague ruled on Tuesday China has no historic title over the waters of the South China Sea and that it has breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights with its actions, infuriating Beijing, which dismissed the case as a farce.  

Abe and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc were in Mongolia for a summit of Asian and European leaders, known as ASEM.

Abe also met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the event, where he told Li that a rules-based international order must be respected, while Li told Japan to stop interfering in the issue, according to reports by China's Xinhua news agency and Japan’s Kyodo news agency.

China has warned Japan to stop intervening on the South China Sea issue after the Hague court rejected China's claims to more than 80 per cent of the waters, while Liu Zhenmin, a vice-minister for foreign affairs, accused a former Japanese president of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea of manipulating "the entire proceedings" behind the ruling.

"China sees the West as trying to obstruct its development," said Bonji Ohara, a research fellow at The Tokyo Foundation think tank and a former military attache in Beijing.

"They see Japan as acting on behalf of the West to thwart China. So it's hard for China to seek better relations."

Eight months since the last meeting between Abe and Li, a failure to ease animosities not only threatens Japan's biggest trading relationship, but increases the risk of a military clash over rival claims to uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

Japanese fighter jets scrambled against Chinese jets nearing its airspace a record 199 times in the April-June period, an increase of 85 on the same period last year.

Diplomatic Coup

For Abe it could also mean that what seemed like a diplomatic coup 18 months ago has slipped through his fingers. Then, the two countries issued a statement acknowledging differences of opinion over ownership of the East China Sea islands before a summit between Abe and President Xi Jinping.

After the Hague tribunal issued its ruling on the South China Sea on Tuesday, Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida angered China by releasing a statement underscoring the tribunal's verdict as "final and legally binding" on the parties to the dispute.

"Japan strongly expects that the parties' compliance with this award will eventually lead to the peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea," Kishida said, adding that Japan has "consistently advocated the importance of the rule of law and the use of peaceful means, not the use of force or coercion" in settling maritime disputes.

While China's main focus may be on its loss of face in the Hague, sparring over the disputed islands in the East China Sea has also intensified, with China alleging that two Japanese fighter aircraft had "provoked" Chinese fighters in June as they patrolled China's self-declared air defence identification zone - an allegation Japan has denied.

Also in June, a Chinese warship was spotted in the contiguous zone outside Japanese-administered waters around the disputed islands. While Chinese coastguard ships frequently sail right into what Japan sees as its territorial waters, no military vessel had previously been seen there.

Failure to Communicate

One reason the improvement in ties did not take root is that the Abe administration doesn't have anyone who can communicate effectively with the Xi administration, said Noriyuki Kawamura, a professor at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies.

As a result, no one has been able to fathom the reasons for its behaviour, he said, adding that Japan's new ambassador to Beijing will also need time to develop relations.

The next opportunity for a top-level meeting will likely be the Group of 20 talks to be hosted by China in September. Ohara said the meeting would be an important not only for bilateral ties between China and Japan.

"I think China will use this as a platform to express its dissatisfaction with what it sees as obstruction of its development by the West and Japan," Ohara said. "China is saying it won't play by the West's rules," he added.

"To get along with China in international society, we have to play the same game as them. That means we have to have the same rules and we need to start working those out as soon as possible."