Japan launched a new destroyer with top-of-the line US missile defense technology earlier this month, the Maya, and despite Japan and the ship’s mostly defensive nature, China portrayed the ship as a dangerous menace.
On August 6, 1945, the world came to know nuclear war with an atomic bomb obliterating the Japanese city of Hiroshima and wiping almost 100,000 lives off the face of the earth in an instant. The seven decades between then and now have seen the rise of a strong US-Japanese alliance and peace across the Pacific.
Japan, following its colonization of much of China during World War II, renounced military aggression following its surrender to the US. Since then Japan hasn’t kept a standing military, but what it calls a self defense force. Japan’s constitution strictly limits defense spending and doesn’t allow the deployment of troops overseas.
The nuclear and missile threat from North Korea, which has several times overflown the island with nuclear-capable missiles, has spurned a desire in Tokyo for missile defenses, which the US has obliged, manifesting itself in part in the Maya.
“It’s not a big deal that they have this ship,” Veerle Nouwens, an Asia-Pacific expert at the Royal United Services Institute told Business Insider. “They’re using it for military exchanges or diplomacy. That’s effectively what it’s doing by going around to India, Shri Lanka, and Singapore.”
Japan’s new destroyer isn’t a radical departure from its old ones and will spend most of its time training with and visiting other neighboring militaries. The destroyer isn’t exactly a rubber ducky, but has one of the more peaceful missions imaginable for a warship.
One reason it may have drawn rebuke from Beijing is simple geography. This destroyer will have to pass through the South China Sea, which is extremely sensitive for Beijing, as it unilaterally claims almost the whole sea as its own in open defiance of international law.
China’s Global Times state-linked media outlet responded to the ship’s launch by saying it was “potentially targeting China and threatening other countries,” citing Chinese experts.
“Once absolute security is realized by Japan and the US, they could attack other countries without scruples,” one such expert said, “which will certainly destabilize other regions.”
China’s real game
“China seeks full control over the South China Sea. we can say that quite squarely,” said Nouwens. “It seeks to displace the US from its traditional position from its regional dominance in southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific more widely.”
Since World War II, the US, particularly the US Navy, has enforced free and open seas and a rules based world order around the world. This order, imposed at a massive cost to the US, has enriched the world and specifically China, as safe shipping in open waters came as a given to business people around the globe.
But now, “China is threatening to lead to a situation where that may not be a given anymore,” said Nouwens.
China has repeatedly threatened force against countries that seek to undertake simple activities, like fishing, within their own UN-designated maritime borders. But when a US Navy ship passes through the South China Sea, Beijing calls it provocative, unhelpful, or destabilizing.
“When other countries do it, it’s threatening. When China does it to other countries, it’s fine,” said Nouwens.
That the only two countries to ever engage in nuclear war can now work together as partners looking to protect the rights of all countries on the high seas should represent a welcome and peaceful development.
But for Beijing, that fundamentally seeks to undermine that world order to further its own goals of dominating Asia, it’s cause for worry.