Japan Correspondent


TOKYO, Japan — Carlos Del Toro, the new secretary of the U.S. Navy, fired a shot across the bows of both Russia and China during his first official visit to Japan, accusing Beijing and Moscow of attempting to “bully” and “intimidate” other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Del Toro was speaking with the media on Oct. 25, a short while after a fleet of five Russian and five Chinese warships completed an unprecedented circumnavigation of the main Japanese island of Honshu. The fleet carried out a series of exercises in the Sea of Japan before proceeding on Oct. 18 through the Tsugaru Strait, the narrow waterway that separates Honshu from the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.  

The strait is international waters open to foreign ships, but narrows to a chokepoint just 19.5 km wide. During the Cold War, Tokyo made the deliberate decision to limit its territorial waters to just three nautical miles from the shore of both Honshu and Hokkaido, instead of the 12 it is entitled to claim, in order to leave a narrow passage through the middle.  

The strip of unclaimed water permitted U.S. ships carrying nuclear weapons to transit the strait without violating Japan’s commitment to the “Three Non-Nuclear Principles” of not developing or deploying atomic weapons, as well as not permitting nuclear arms to enter its territory.

The combined Chinese and Russian fleet has made the most of that position, although they were closely monitored throughout the journey by a Japanese P-3C maritime surveillance aircraft and two minesweepers. 

To compound the fleet’s aggressive actions, it then passed down the eastern seaboard of Japan before three days later traversing the Osumi Strait, off the most southerly tip of Kyushu and the scattered islands of Okinawa Prefecture to the South. The Chinese and Russian warships did not enter Japanese territorial waters, but it was the first time that the two Navies had carried out what are provocative maneuvers so close to Japan’s shores.  The fleet’s actions coincided with Del Toro’s visit to Japan for talks with Japanese defense officials and to meet serving personnel at Yokosuka Naval Base, south-west of Tokyo. 

“I believe that the relationship between China and Russia, perhaps recently, has evolved in ways where they are trying to intimidate other nations with their actions that do not abide by a rule-based international order,” he said. “I think it is necessary to thoroughly deter them from bullying other countries and being aggressors in any possible way.”

James D.J. Brown, an associate professor of international relations specializing in security issues at the Tokyo campus of Temple University, said what was essentially a “parade of 10 foreign warships” just a few miles off the coast of Japan is “symbolic but also a real cause for concern” in Tokyo.  “China and Russia continue to get closer together and together they are communicating the message that they can create difficulties for Japan,” he said. “And while it’s important to point out that they have not violated Japan’s territorial waters, this is all about signaling,” he added.  

Neither Beijing nor Moscow are happy about the creation — and possible expansion — of the Quad security alliance, which brings together the U.S., Japan, Australia and India, Brown said, while a demonstration of shared military capabilities so close to Japan could also be interpreted as a warning that Japan should not consider following in Australia’s footsteps and obtaining a nuclear submarine capability, potentially expanding the AUKUS regional security arrangement.   

Japan’s Tsugaru Strait recently saw incursion by Russia and China.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Del Toro, a former naval officer who was sworn in as 78th secretary of the Navy in August, will also visit Guam, Hawaii, South Korea and Papua New Guinea on his first overseas mission, using the trip to reinforce the importance of Washington’s defense partnerships and underline the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region. 

“The Indo-Pacific region is a priority for the Department of Defense and the Department of the Navy,” he said in a statement.

Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi used his meeting with Del Toro to reiterate Tokyo’s concerns about the recent joint activities of the Chinese and Russian militaries, saying, “The security situation surrounding Japan is becoming increasingly severe.”

Also expressing concern over North Korea’s recent first test-firing of a submarine-launched ballistic missile in waters between the Korean Peninsula and northern Japan, Del Toro said the U.S. hopes very much to be able to strengthen cooperation with Japan in the maritime arena. 

Washington is at present conducting a posture review of its military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region, Del Toro said, and is “experimenting and assessing” a number of options to preserve the assets of the US and its allies in the region. The updated Global Posture Review is due to be released later this year or in early 2022. 

Conservatives in Japan fear that the administration of President Joseph R. Biden might still choose to “go easy” on China out of concerns over global trade and in an effort to encourage Beijing to do more to combat global warming. 

“Under Biden, I do not believe that enough energy is being expended on countering China and Russia in the western Pacific,” said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University. “There are many here who feel that Biden is afraid of antagonizing China, despite the threats and dangers that we clearly see in the region,” he told the Journal.  “A more robust response is required to Beijing and Moscow, but instead there are growing concerns that U.S. leadership in the region is becoming less reliable.” mbj