Japan’s constitution may prevent it from possessing an offensive military force, but as the ships on display during the Japan Coast Guard’s 60th birthday commemorations in May showed, it is increasingly becoming a maritime force to be reckoned with.
With 35,000 kilometres of coastline, and with a heavy dependence on the Strait of Malacca – through which about 80 per cent of the nation’s oil passes – Japan is as aware as any sovereign power of the need to protect its seaborne interests.
But the constraints imposed by Japan’s so-called pacifist constitution, drafted in just a week by the occupying United States forces and signed into law 61 years ago in November, has not stopped Japanese policymakers from expanding the country’s first line of defence.
“The Japanese have acquired platforms and ships that have led not just to an increase in tonnage, but also an increase in their offensive potential,” says Toshi Yoshihara, associate professor at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
By the start of this year, the JCG had a fleet of 355 patrol vessels and craft as well as rescue boats, survey vessels and 73 aircraft. The patrol vessels include 13 PLH Shikishima class vessels, weighing 6500 tons apiece and with a range of about 20,000 nautical miles. In addition, the JCG requested a budget of 197 billion yen (about $2.8 billion) in 2008. This compared, for example, with South Korea’s coast guard, which proposed a budget of about $1 billion for the same period.
As Richard Samuels, director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pointed out in New Fighting Power! Japan’s Growing Maritime Capabilities and East Asian Security published in International Security, by beefing up the coast guard, “Tokyo’s leaders have used the JCG budget to surpass the self-imposed 1 per cent of gross domestic product limit on defence spending.”
He argues that although the JCG lacks the firepower to be considered an alternative navy, Japan has allowed pro-defence politicians to “test and stretch the extant limits on public acceptance of defence spending and on the use of force.”
Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Pacific Forum, says the drive for Japan to improve its security capabilities stems in large part from its experience at the end of the first Gulf war, when it was derided for its “chequebook diplomacy”.
“There’s a real discomfort about putting people in harm’s way and there’s a real pride in [the war renouncing] Article 9 of the Constitution as a defining component of their identity in the post-war era, and one they think is a good one,” Glosserman says. “But there’s a growing sense that they’re the second largest economy in the world and that it’s their responsibility to do more. But the question is, how do they do that? That’s what they’re still trying to figure out . And the coastguard issue is one factor in the equation.”
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party, the dominant political party in the post-war era, made constitutional revision one of the centrepieces of his premiership, seeking a more active international security role for Japan and pushing through a law allowing the government to hold a national referendum on revision as early as 2010.
But Glosserman suggests even those backing the LDP’s main rival, the Democratic Party of Japan, should expect little in the way of fundamental change on key elements of Japanese security policy.
“To challenge that [the US security alliance], which has been the lynchpin of Japanese security for the last 60 years, and to argue that you’re going to try something new, is a dangerous strategy,” he says. “So what you do is take that off the table, you say, ‘we’re not going to mess with the alliance.'”
Japan’s World War II militarism, combined with its territorial disputes, such as those with South Korea over the Takeshima/Dokdo islets and China with the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands, have made Japan’s neighbours skittish about the slightest nuance of militarily resurgence.
But the non-military nature of the JCG has enabled Japan to reach out to its neighbours without alarming them, and has allowed it to expand its role in initiating and coordinating maritime issues.
“The JCG’s civilian status and limited weaponry, as well as its long history of cooperation on navigational safety issues in the region, have boosted the positive image of Japan and its coast guard,” says Yoichiro Sato, professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.
Mark Valencia, senior associate at the Nautilus Institute, agrees. “Coast guards in many states are under civilian as opposed to military authority, and thus cooperation is easier,” he says. He also suggests coast guards are anyway better suited than navies to tackle some of the key maritime threats facing Asian nations.
“Navies are designed, trained and missioned for war, not anti-piracy, anti-smuggling, fisheries enforcement and WMD searches. So there’s a need for coast guards to take care of these comprehensive security tasks,” he says.
The Japanese government earlier this year suggested there was scope for expansion in these areas, canvassing the possibility of the JCG being dispatched to engage in peacekeeping operations in East Timor and playing a more active role in cracking down on shipments of nuclear materials. Valencia says one of the most successful examples of cooperation has been the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum, which was formed in 2000 on the initiative of Japan.
The group held its most recent meeting in San Francisco in September where the six member nations, Canada, China, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States, signed a memorandum of cooperation codifying the framework of the forum over information sharing and multilateral operations.
Another success, according to Keyuan Zou, Harris Professor of International Law at the University of Central Lancashire in the United Kingdom, has been the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP). The agreement was concluded in Tokyo in 2004 and is made up of Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Japan, China, the Republic of Korea, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
ReCAAP came into force in September 2006 and includes a headquarters agreement establishing the Information Sharing Centre in Singapore, the first permanent body in the region with a full-time staff dedicated to coordinating regional government efforts in combating piracy and armed robbery.
Zou believes the improved coordination has had a significant impact on piracy in the region, including the Malacca Strait. Indeed, according to the International Maritime Organization, the number of incidents in the Malacca Strait fell from 112 in 2000 to just 12 in 2007.
But despite the progress in maritime cooperation, sources of tension remain, as evidenced by the revelation that China has been building a large underground nuclear submarine base on the edge of Hainan Island.
More recently, Japan included a warning in its annual defence report in September concerning Chinese military spending, which rose by 17.6 per cent this year, and highlighted China’s maritime ambitions.
“China is obviously going to be a very significant maritime power in the coming years,” Yoshihara said, noting that it is already the third largest shipbuilder in the world and that it has been building increasingly sophisticated vessels. He cites the example of the Haixun 31, which was launched by the China Maritime Safety Administration, the country’s equivalent of the coast guard, in 2004. The Haixun 31 is the first MSA ship with a helicopter deck, and it has a range of about 10,000 kilometres and the capacity to cruise for about 40 days.
Zou says China’s growing interest in maritime security is motivated in large part by economic considerations. “With its rapid economic development, China needs to provide security for its energy imports, and the Malacca Strait is a critical route for oil imports from the Middle East.”
China’s Commerce Ministry announced in January that crude oil imports in 2007 rose 12.4 per cent over a year earlier, about 40 per cent of which came from the Middle East.
But Jason Alderwick, a maritime defence analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says there are other strategic considerations for China.
“There are domestic issues that drive China’s maritime investment, such as the PLA’s priorities concerning the Taiwan Straits issue,” he says.
And Yoshihara believes that the Taiwan issue has also played a part in driving Japan’s security ambitions, including an interest in network-centric warfare and a missile shield developed jointly with the United States. “The official rationale [for the missile shield] is the prospects of missile launches from rogue states. But I think it is partly a response to the Taiwan Straits Crisis.”
He says the planned shield is by its very nature heavily dependent on advanced IT for the quick response necessary to respond to rockets coming from mainland Asia.
“I think for a joint missile system to work, it is essential to ensure it can keep up with network-centric capabilities . As the United States improves its capabilities, Japan needs to keep up to allow interoperability.”
But Yoshihara adds that although the United States might welcome the “outsourcing” of maritime security, including greater cooperation among Asian coast guards and Japan bearing a bigger share of its defence burden, it might find it gets more than it bargained for in the region.
“The problem with the United States maritime strategy is the assumption that all maritime nations have a common interest,” says Yoshihara. “It might find the big powers have a different idea of order at sea in their own regions.”