The rhetoric surrounding the diplomatic and military moves by the regional powers in the South China Sea continues to draw attention to the competing territorial claims. These sensationalist stories often advocate various singular sovereignty claims, while ignoring a complex, rich, history that points to much more diverse competition for the region’s waters, resources, and small islands.
As China begins to pressure its neighbors over what it views as valid claims to the South China Sea, much commentary has been directed at what the United States is going to do to support its regional allies. Many observers are solely focused on the highly visible freedom of navigation exercises, military training events, and government statements in response to these encroachments on the global commons. However, far away from the South China Sea a subtle story is unfolding.
The United States and its two major Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, have quietly stepped up their diplomatic cooperation on mutual issues in Eastern Africa. This engagement both with each other and with African partners has resulted in some interesting security developments that has gone largely unnoticed by observers. Arguably one of the most important and notable of these is Japan’s establishment of its only overseas military base since the Second World War in Djibouti, right alongside the only permanent location for U.S. military forces in Africa. Obviously this was not just a serendipitous real estate deal.
Japan has multifaceted security concerns at stake in Africa. Since 2008, elements of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force have deployed in support of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Additionally, since 2009, ships of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force participated in multinational anti-piracy missions off the coast of Somalia.
Considering that Japan is the second-largest monetary contributor to United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions, these deployments are hardly surprising. But Japan’s participation in missions such as anti-piracy patrols and peacekeeping in a country torn by civil war shows a different level of resolve than that previously demonstrated by Japanese governments.
These African deployments play a role in a larger dynamic effort by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to “normalize” Japanese military activities. They serve to test Abe’s military normalization policy under a UN and multilateral construct while focusing on the uncontroversial doctrine of population security, a pillar of Japanese security policy. However, it seems a long-term implied goal is a gradual evolution towards developing a more muscular military capability for use closer to home.
South Korea, America’s other major Asian ally, has also increased its activities in Africa, particularly East Africa, in recent years. In addition to military operations, South Korea has opened new embassies in the region, such as in Kampala, Uganda in 2011, following a 17-year diplomatic absence. South Korea has a relatively robust military presence in the region, so further diplomatic investment is not surprising.
In 2013, South Korea deployed approximately 275 engineering and medical troops to reinforce UNMISS after the outbreak of South Sudan’s current civil war. This deployment shows a strong willingness to commit military forces abroad. Seoul’s military activities in Africa span the continent. Currently, South Korean troops are deployed in support of UN missions in Western Sahara, Darfur, Liberia, and Cote d’Ivoire.
These are not surprising facts given that South Korea is a significant financial and military contributor to other UN operations. It is the third-largest contributor from among OECD countries and the fifth-largest from the Asia-Pacific region. Outside of UN activities, South Korea deploys maritime forces in support of anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden. South Korea’s first international peacekeeping deployment was to Somalia in 1993 as part of the UN Mission in Somalia II.
The diverse military activities of South Korea and Japan in Africa can be directly attributed to support for wider international goals of increased security in Africa. However, there is a significant element of grand strategy at play that helps explain these military operations. In the background of all these activities is the bilateral relationships both Japan and South Korea share with the United States and the long history of Chinese engagement in Africa.
Economically both Japan and South Korea are export dependent yet resource poor. The Middle East provides approximately 85 percent of South Korea’s crude oil. For Japan, the figure is over 90 percent. Ensuring the continued flow of this energy is essential for both of these highly industrialized countries. One reason both nations have significant military and diplomatic investments in East Africa is the promising upstream petroleum potential for export would assist diversification of their energy suppliers away from Persian Gulf suppliers.
Additionally, both nations are major export and import partners for the European Union. These long sea lines of communication pass through two of the world’s most congested and critical choke points: the Straits of Malacca and the Suez Canal. Maintaining a military capability, no matter how limited, along these energy and market routes is prudent.
Ultimately the U.S. nuclear umbrella is the guarantor of Japanese and South Korean security. This is not lost on policymakers in Seoul or Tokyo. A belligerent North Korea has fired ballistic missiles over the Japanese home islands and sank a South Korean naval vessel inside South Korean territorial waters. Both countries are wary of current Chinese island building activities and sovereignty claims in the South China Sea leaves.
It is not a coincidence that both nations’ African activities focus on securing their own strategic positions in Africa as well as the United States’ regional peace and security goals. There are indications this cooperation between the three nations in Africa is becoming formally codified. Japan and South Korea have each posted a military liaison officer at the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa based in Djibouti as well as a Japanese liaison officer at U.S. Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany. There has even been limited low-level military cooperation between Japanese and South Korean contingents in UNMISS, although this resulted in some low-level political controversy in both nations given their history, showing some of the structural weaknesses of this tripartite strategic relationship.
While the Western Pacific and Northeastern Asia retain paramount importance to these Pacific nations, these activities further afield are indicative of the scale and depth of related strategic positioning. Examining a map centered on the Indian Ocean it becomes apparent that the eastern coast of Africa is in fact the extreme western flank of the Pacific theater. That this flank also anchors the energy supplies for all of the major Asian powers ensures that any conflict in the Pacific will surely have wider, global implications.
Jason (Brad) Nicholson is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army. Currently, he is a political science doctoral student at the University of Utah (USA). An Africa policy specialist for the U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson served at U.S. Embassies Tanzania and Uganda, in addition to The Joint Chiefs of Staff and Headquarters, U.S. Africa Command.