China’s attempts to change the status quo in the South China Sea risks provoking a stern response from the international community, Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono told CNN in an exclusive interview Friday.
“Anyone who is trying to change the status quo by force needs to be forced to pay a high cost,” Kono said.
Beijing’s efforts at transforming obscure sandbars and reefs into a string of highly fortified artificial islands stretching hundreds of miles across the South China Sea does not promote or uphold the international order, the defense minister said.
China has stationed missile batteries and deployments of fighter jets and bombers on several of the newly created islands.
“That is destabilizing,” he said. “A free and open maritime order in the South China Sea is as important as any other place and what happens there … will concern the international community.”
Kono is just the latest in a procession of United States and allied leaders to call out China over its actions in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, where it has been pushing its claims of sovereignty over almost all of its 1.3 million square miles.
Late last month, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper called on American allies and partners to step up pressure on Beijing, saying the Chinese Communist Party was showing “brazen disregard of international commitments” it has made in the South China Sea.
“Make no mistake, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) has been engaged in this sort of behavior for many years,” Esper said in an online speech to the UK- based International Institute of Strategic Studies. “But today, its true intentions are on full display for all to see.”
Esper said a united front with US allies and partners was crucial to stop China from intimidating other nations from exercising their rights in the region.
Kono’s comments Friday followed a speech by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday, when he told the Aspen Security Forum that Tokyo and Canberra were both “taking concrete action to support our Pacific and Southeast Asian friends and family.”
Morrison said the US and Australia share common values, and that the two nations have “got each other’s back.”
Kono on Friday also talked of Japan’s strong mutual relationship with Washington, saying it was also vitally important with regard to the threat posed by North Korea, especially after negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang over North Korea’s nuclear missile program broke down.
“They have missiles and they may have some nuclear capability,” Kono said. “We are not sure what KJU is thinking. So it is more difficult to predict what NK is trying to do, so we need to be on alert 24/7,” he said, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by his initials.
The Japanese defense minister said his country would be within its rights to expand its weapons arsenal to include offensive weapons to deter any possible North Korean aggression, but he said Tokyo has other options, too, and would act in step with Washington.
“There are two ways to deter others. One is deterrence by denial. And there is deterrence by punishment, and that is something the US-Japan alliance will consider,” he said.
Finally, Kono played down the tensions in another Pacific hotspot, the Tokyo-administered Senkaku Islands, also claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu Islands.
China had sent its ships into waters around the islands for more than 100 consecutive days in a streak that ended earlier this month, raising fears of a potential skirmish between the two neighbors.
But Kono said Friday that Tokyo did not want to inflame the situation.
“I don’t think there’s anything that we need to do right now,” he said.
“We are definitely not trying to unilaterally escalate the situation. I don’t think China is trying to escalate the situation right now.”