Japan Runs Submarine Drills Inside China's Nine-Dash-Line

While Russia and China conducted joint war games in another region, Japan began extended military drills in the contested South China Sea.

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force submarine Kuroshio enters Naval Station Pearl Harbor on June 25, 2006. It is the 'sub-on-the-run' in ocean military exercises Japan is conducting in the South China Sea. Photo: JO1 Cynthia Clark/Marion Doss, CC

Last week, while Presidents Putin and Xi stood beaming over their countries’ joint war games, Japan was conducting a mini war game of its own.

According to an announcement by the Japanese Defense Ministry on September 17, last week their country’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) held exercises involving a submarine, the Kuroshio, the helicopter carrier Kaga, and destroyer vessels the Inazuma and Suzutsuki. The ‘games’ for Japan consisted of the Kuroshio attempting to avoid detection while the other vessels joined in hot pursuit.

The war games launched with the Kuroshio heading out on August 27 from one of Japan’s MSDF bases in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture. The ships which were sent out starting to find the sub left in a separate contingent on August 26. The exercises will continue to run through October 30.

While the news that Japan’s drills have started is unusual enough, more unusual is that the Defense Ministry even announced the event. Although such drills are not uncommon for the MSDF, there is almost never any public announcement or confirmation that they are happening.

Even more striking is where the drills are being conducted. The runs will cover large areas of the Indian Ocean and the disputed South China Sea region. On September 17,  Japan’s Kuroshio submarine made a stop at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay port, a strategic location because of how close it is to the Paracel and Spratly island chains. Those islands and the waters around them are currently claimed by China, despite a UN finding that China had no right to them. Vietnam also disputes China’s claims of ownership there.

The choice of the MSDF exercise region and the Vietnam port-of-call were clearly not random. Though Japan and Vietnam have made no comment about why the exercises are where they are, this is clearly a show-of-force against China’s expansionist policies in that area. Japan appears to have deliberately staged the exercises far enough away from China’s claims areas to avoid direct confrontation, but the MSDF is understood to have ventured inside what is referred to as China’s “nine-dash line”, the region China claims as its maritime territory. Those claims cover over 80 percent of the South China Sea.

Vietnam is not the only country questioning China’s ocean grab, construction of artificial islands and establishment of military bases in the South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan also have other claims in the area. The Philippines took their claim to the UN for resolution and won, but then backed down when China ignored the United Nations’s ruling and offered development aid and loans.

The region is important to many of these countries for fishing rights alone. Below the waters there are what are believed to be major oil and natural gas reserves available for the taking. The South China Sea also happens to be the pathway for an estimated $3 trillion of trade carried over these waters every year.

Japan is also not the only power to have sent military vessels deliberately into waters China claims, just to make a point. In August, the HMS Albion, a British Royal Navy amphibious assault ship, sailed in much closer than Japan to islands claimed by China. It said it was there to make use of its “freedom of navigation rights” there.

When the British ship arrived close to its islands, China reacted quickly. It issued a strong protest against the actions from the UK. It also flew in aircraft and sent a naval vessel to meet the HMS Albion.

China was also not pleased with Japan’s entry into its waters last week. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang asked that Japan “respect the efforts made by regional countries to “respect the efforts made by regional countries to resolve the South China issue through talks. Act with caution and don’t take any acts that could damage peace and stability in the region.”

Unless China pushes the Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels out, for now through the end of October they can expect their out-of-the-region neighbor Japan to keep on sailing, “playing war” and challenging China's aggression.