China Warns Japan Not to Complicate South China Sea Situation

  • Nations' defense ministers meet on sidelines of Asean event
  • Japanese officials cagey on role of country's armed forces

Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer ship Kurama, left, leads a troop of vessels during a review at Sagami Bay, Japan, on Oct. 18, 2015.

Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan urged his Japanese counterpart not to take any actions that might complicate the situation in the South China Sea, saying the waters were not an issue between the two countries.

Chang made the remarks, reported by China’s official Xinhua news agency Wednesday, in a meeting with Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani on the sidelines of a conference of Southeast Asian defense ministers in Kuala Lumpur. The gathering was overshadowed by disputes over the waters after the U.S. Navy last month sailed a warship to within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China, thus challenging its territorial claims.

While Japan is offering verbal support for the actions of its only treaty ally, officials have been cagey about what role the officially pacifist nation’s maritime forces could play in the South China Sea. China is Japan’s biggest trading partner and relations between the nations are thawing after turning their coldest in decades over a separate territorial dispute in the East China Sea.

"In legal terms, it’s possible to sail through because of the right of innocent passage," said retired vice-admiral Hiromi Takashima. "However, it is a major political problem, so if you ask whether Japan can actually do it, it’s difficult in terms of both the international and domestic situation."

Reaffirming Support

In their first ever formal meeting on Monday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told South Korean Prime Minister Park Geun Hye that the South China Sea is a matter of common concern for international society. He said that the U.S. actions were in line with international law, adding that he supported them and that he would like to cooperate with the U.S. and South Korea to maintain free, open and peaceful seas.

"We will continue to fully examine how situations in the South China Sea will impact Japan’s security and what contributions Japan should make for the stability of this region," Nakatani told reporters last week. He reaffirmed Japan’s support for the U.S. operation after a Nov. 3 meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

Nakatani was in Vietnam on Thursday for talks with his Vietnamese counterpart. His visit coincides with that of Chinese President Xi Jinping to one of the countries in the web of overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea.

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