Amid South China Sea Tensions, Japan Strengthens Ties With Philippines, Vietnam

 
 

As China’s construction projects and the United States’ freedom of navigation operations ratchet up tensions in the South China Sea, Japan is increasing its cooperation with other claimant states – most notably the Philippines and Vietnam. Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) plays a large role in this cooperation.

Japan and the Philippines became “strategic partners” back in 2011. Security cooperation has increased since then: Japan and the Philippines took a more concrete step recently when the Japan Marine United Corp won a bid to supply the Philippine Department of Transportation and Communications with ten multirole response vessels this past April. Indicating how seriously Japan takes the relationship, PHP 7.4 billion out of the PHP 8.8 billion (around $200 million) cost for the ten boats actually comes from Japanese ODA to the Philippines. The Philippine government is only putting down PHP 1.4 billion (just under $30 million) for the purchase. Deliveries are expected to take place from 2016 to 2018. Meanwhile, in May, Japan and the Philippines conducted their first joint naval exercises in the South China Sea.

When Filipino President Benigno Aquino III visited Tokyo in June, he signed the Joint Declaration on the Strengthened Strategic Partnership with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. During that visit, both sides agreed to explore the transfer of Japanese military hardware and technology to the Philippines and to start discussions on a visiting forces agreement.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

After a bilateral meeting with Aquino on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in late November, Abe said in a press statement, “We welcomed in principle on transfer of defense equipment and agreed to work together for the early signing of agreement and realization of cooperation in defense equipment.” Furthermore, he added that Aquino requested a “provision of large patrol vessels to the Philippine Coast Guard and Japan would like to consider the specifics of the matter.”

Asahi Shimbun reported last week that Japan is considering offering secondhand TC-90 twin-engine turboprop aircraft, used for Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force’s (MSDF) training, to the Philippines. Manila is likely to use these planes for patrol missions over the South China Sea.

Cooperation with the Philippines perhaps should come more naturally, as both Japan and the Philippines are U.S. treaty allies. From that perspective, Japan’s cooperation with Vietnam is more indicative of just how concerned Japan is with China’s ability to get away with unilateral actions in maritime disputes.

Japan has been “strategic partners” with Vietnam longer – their history dates back to 2006, when Abe was prime minister for the first time, actually. Cooperation with Vietnam has also been increasing recently. For example, Japan promised to provide Vietnam with six vessels last year; delivery is expected to be completed this year. The six vessels consist of two former Japanese Fishery Agency patrol boats and four used commercial fishing boats, intended for patrolling purposes. The deal is financed through an ODA package worth 500 million yen (around $4 million).

Following defense consultations in early November, Japan and Vietnam agreed that MSDF vessels will be allowed to make port calls in Cam Ranh Bay. Cam Ranh Bay is a deep-water harbor in central Vietnam alongside the South China Sea and has a strong historical association with Russia (and before that, the Soviet Union). Joint naval exercises between the MSDF and Vietnamese Navy were also discussed.

In all these different aspects of cooperation, Japan is able to do so much because of its economic superpower status. Though Japan’s aid has often been dismissed as purely economic – and, indeed, that is how Japanese aid got started, as reparations to Southeast Asian states designed to boost Japan’s own domestic economic growth – it has gained a strategic element since as early as the 1980s and the 1990s.

Before the 1980s, Japan’s aid to the Philippines was about smoothing Japanese businesses’ entry into the market. However, as the United States began demanding Japan do more to provide for regional security, instead of increasing its defense spending, Japan responded by increasing its share of donor responsibilities in support of the Philippines’ economic recovery. Akira Takahashi describes this as katagawari (taking on someone else’s responsibility), and argued that “Japan’s ODA to the Philippines is most clearly an issue of triangular relations among the U.S., the Philippines, and Japan.” Japan increased its aid to the Philippines because of the recognition that stability in this archipelagic state was vital to Japan’s own security.

With regards to Vietnam, again, the situation was a bit more complicated. Japan froze ODA following Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in December 1978. In the early 1990s, Japan had to be careful about resuming aid until the U.S.-Vietnam relationship improved, according to Junichi Inada. Japan did not want to get ahead of the United States, but also recognized that giving aid to Vietnam would not only be about Japan’s business interests, but about reintegrating Vietnam into the region. There were political motivations driving Japan’s desire to resume aid.

This informal recognition that foreign aid should not only be an economic tool but a foreign policy tool developed in the 1990s and was made explicit in Japan’s updated ODA charter. Japan’s ODA charter, first adopted in 1992, then revised in 2003, was updated again in February 2015. The charter declares, “The objectives of Japan’s ODA are to contribute to the peace and development of the international community, and thereby to help ensure Japan’s own security and prosperity (emphasis added).”

Under the new charter, Japan is allowed to send aid to foreign militaries for non-combat use, though military aid should still be avoided. But, depending on how the charter is read, Japan could still justify “non-combat” surveillance assets, including radar systems, maritime surveillance aircraft, and other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance hardware. This could be particularly useful for the Philippines and Vietnam, of course.

Japan is interested in what China does, and has a stake in how the disputes in the South China Sea are resolved for many reasons. First, Japan is concerned about the impact of tensions in the South China Sea on Japanese shipping – and by extension – its economy; second, Japan wants to mitigate the “Finlandization” of littoral states in the absence of outside balancing; third, Japan is obsessed with upholding international law and preventing China from setting a negative precedent that force can be used to resolve territorial disputes (a precedent which could have repercussions for Japan’s own island dispute with China in the East China Sea); and fourth, Japan wants to entice greater U.S. commitment to Japan’s security by demonstrating that Japan is willing and able to “burden-share” in providing security to the Asia-Pacific.

For all these reasons, expect to see continued Japanese cooperation with the Philippines and Vietnam – through ODA, defense equipment transfers, and other means.

Newsletter
Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief