WASHINGTON -- U.S. patience with China is wearing thin, according to an official from President Barack Obama's administration. The comment was made in reference to plans for large-scale cooperation between the coast guards of the U.S. and Japan to maintain law and order in the South China Sea.
What is especially irritating the U.S. is China expanding its territorial reach by reclaiming land in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
The cooperation plan was mentioned in a document released after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's meeting with the U.S. President at the White House at the end of April, which in a way makes it look like it does not relate to China.
The document, "U.S.-Japan Cooperation for a More Prosperous and Stable World," says that as part of their cooperation for "maritime security" the U.S. and Japan seek to "strengthen regional cooperation to combat piracy and armed robbery against ships through Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP)."
This extract, which seems to only refer to greater cooperation for the fight against piracy, actually represents a strategic move with far more significant implications for the security situation in the region, said a Japanese diplomatic source.
The statement means coast guards from the two countries will work together with their Southeast Asian counterparts to stop China's massive and rapid land reclamation work on reefs in the disputed Spratly Islands. The U.S. and Japan will try to expand and strengthen their collective presence in the South China Sea and keep an eye on China's activities.
China's "inland sea"
The legal framework for ReCAAP, a multilateral agreement on regional cooperation to combat piracy, was established under Japan's initiative and came into force in the autumn of 2006. But the U.S. only joined it in the autumn of 2014.
Washington's decision to become a party to the treaty was prompted by China's move to turn the South China Sea into its "inland sea" by reclaiming vast patches of land in the Spratly Islands. Beijing has further alarmed the U.S. by indicating its intention to establish air defense identification zones in the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea after taking the step in the East China Sea. These moves by China to challenge the regional order are making its neighbors uneasy and ruffling U.S. feathers.
The operation of U.S. and Japan coast guards in the territorial waters of other countries in the South China Sea will inevitably be subject to tight restrictions. Still, Washington decided to join the ReCAAP arrangement and expand its maritime security cooperation with Japan and other allies in the region because it recognized the need to build a solid "bulwark" against China's expansion.
The U.S. Coast Guard and the Japan Coast Guard already work together on maritime accidents and other situations in the Pacific. But in reality, there have not been active and frequent exchanges between the two organizations.
Under the initiative, the coast guards will carry out joint maritime drills and exchange senior officials, as well as help those countries locked in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea, including the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, train and improve their own coast guards.
Japan and the U.S. will provide their expertise in coastal defense to help those Southeast Asian nations bolster their relatively underdeveloped capabilities for maritime security and law enforcement. The ultimate goal is to build an effective coalition to respond to the security threat posed by China's territorial expansion in the region.
But the efforts by Tokyo and Washington to contain China's threatening actions are likely to face many challenges.
A former U.S. Department of Defense official says the U.S. Coast Guard is facing such serious equipment and staff shortages that it will not be able to widen the scope of its operations into the South China Sea.
The U.S. Coast Guard has a long history dating back to 1790, when its predecessor was founded under the administration of George Washington, the first president of the United States. It is a powerful and competent armed organization, but it is smaller than the New York Police Department in terms of manpower and budget.
The U.S. Coast Guard has to defend the country's long coast lines and carry out search and rescue operations in vast sea areas with roughly the manpower of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force. Spending cuts by successive U.S. administrations have left an aging fleet, ill-equipped to deal with new security challenges, according to a U.S. government source.
Meanwhile, the Japan Coast Guard also has a staff shortage because of an increase in operations around the Senkaku Islands, which are under Japan's control but also claimed by China.
Compared with operations to guard the Senkaku Islands and other Japanese territories, any activity in the South China Sea will be a far lower priority for the Japan Coast Guard, whose main missions do not include such support for other countries, a former Coast Guard official said.
The Japan Coast Guard has strong historical ties with its Southeast Asian counterparts and can export unarmed patrol boats there.
But in the Philippines and many other Southeast Asian countries, Japan has found its assistance to train coast guards and often ends up in a disappointment because the officers tend to seek jobs in higher government organizations, said a Japanese government official.
Despite this and other tough challenges confronting the plan to expand cooperation, the scope of this initiative will keep growing in coming years, predicts a U.S. diplomat.
Washington has entered a new phase with its awareness of the need to take seriously the security threat posed by China's expansion in the South China Sea, a Japanese government official said.
These comments reflect the huge impact China's naval expansion is having on Japan, the U.S. and Southeast Asia.