Japan and the ‘Maritime Pivot’ to Southeast Asia

Recent Features

Features | Security | East Asia

Japan and the ‘Maritime Pivot’ to Southeast Asia

Given domestic and regional realities, how involved can Japan be in the South China Sea?

Japan and the ‘Maritime Pivot’ to Southeast Asia
Credit: REUTERS/Toru Hanai

“Japan should not be the weak link in the regional and global security framework where the U.S. plays a leading role… we must be a net contributor to the provision of the world’s welfare and security.” So proclaimed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a speech back in September 2013, adding that “Japan will contribute to the peace and stability of the region and the world even more proactively than before.”

The centerpiece of this aspiration, which is proceeding under Abe’s “Proactive Contributor to Peace,” has been Japan’s maritime pivot to Southeast Asia.

Indeed, Japan has gone deeper westwards, into the Indian Ocean region, and even further afield into the Caribbean for example. But nowhere else have Japan’s maritime security capacity-building assistance programs been as extensive as they are in Southeast Asia. Some of the beneficiaries in the region are the Philippines and Vietnam which, like Japan in the East China Sea, have their fair share of problems with Beijing in the South China Sea. Tokyo has agreed to supply them with patrol vessels.

During an interview in October 2013, Abe said that Southeast Asian leaders expect Japan to demonstrate leadership not just on the economic front but also in the field of security in the Asia-Pacific. One could of course hold the contrarian view that except for Hanoi and Manila, which view Japan as a counterweight to China, Southeast Asian countries are not keen to incur Beijing’s wrath by openly welcoming a proactive security role for Japan in the region.

Southeast Asian Support Unforthcoming?

Really, though, there is little question as to whether a more proactive Japanese security role in Southeast Asia will be welcomed by regional governments. Tokyo can count on their general support (or at least understanding). For instance, an Indonesian government official has remarked: “Japan’s increased role in the region is something normal and natural. As its economy grows stronger, it will contribute more to the region.” Even Cambodia, China’s long-time Southeast Asian ally, has expressed support for a more proactive security contribution from Tokyo.

In fact, there seems to be a general consensus within the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to foster closer defense and security links with Japan, never mind about Beijing. In November 2013, Japan and ASEAN member states issued a joint statement that included calls for enhancing maritime security cooperation and promoting freedom of navigation and overflight – apparently an oblique reference to China’s announcement of an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea not long before. This pledge was reinforced at the Sixth Japan-ASEAN Defense Vice-Ministerial Forum in following October.

There is also little question about the strategic thinking behind this proactive posture. Best known has been Japan’s traditional reliance on energy sea routes plying Southeast Asian waters. But there are more. Ever since ties with Beijing soured in 2012, Tokyo has shifted its investment attention to Southeast Asia. In 2013, Japanese corporate investments in the region were triple that in China. Moreover, Southeast Asia is a potential testing ground for Japan’s arms exports, which can be linked to maritime security capacity-building assistance.

So there should be no doubt about Japan’s rationale in its maritime pivot to Southeast Asia. The “demand pull” is clearly present. Tokyo has been enthusiastic. Among its initiatives, it has struck deals to facilitate maritime security cooperation and exchanges with regional governments, such as coast guard training for Indonesia and Malaysia. Abe has even revised the official development assistance charter, with an eye towards using this scheme to facilitate capacity-building assistance to these countries.

Lending Substance

Clearly, though, Japan under Abe seeks to do more to lend substance to this “more proactive” posture. For example, in February Tokyo mulled deploying Self-Defense Force (SDF) aircraft and vessels to conduct surveillance in the South China Sea alongside the United States. On at least two separate occasions in the May-June period, Defense Minister General Nakatani said that Japan would consider SDF surveillance missions in the South China Sea. Following joint maritime search-and-rescue flights over the South China Sea conducted with the Philippine military in June 2015, Chief of Joint Staff Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano aired the possibility of future SDF surveillance activities in the South China Sea.

Soon after the well-publicized U.S. Navy freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial island built on the disputed Subi Reef, in late October Tokyo reportedly sought access to Vietnam’s strategic Cam Ranh naval base. This implies the possibility of more frequent SDF presence in Southeast Asia, not least having in mind Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. Last month, Abe told U.S. President Barack Obama that Tokyo would be studying the feasibility of SDF activities in the South China Sea.

If they ever materialized, such operations will most likely be unilateral since Tokyo has clearly outlined its stance of not joining the American FONOPS. “At present, the SDF does not continuously conduct surveillance activities in the South China Sea, and we have no such specific plans,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference, adding that “we want to continue to study (what Japan can do in the South China Sea) as we carefully assess what impact the situation in the South China Sea poses to the security of our country.”

The question is whether Abe can enhance Japan’s maritime pivot to Southeast Asia by going down this path of creating a more regular SDF presence. Domestic, strategic and operational constraints would seem to undermine such aspirations.

Navigating a Domestic Minefield

Abe continues to face a vocal domestic constituency that for the most part is opposed to his idea of a more proactive security posture, especially one tied to the controversial quest to exercise Japan’s right to collective self-defense. In a nationwide telephone survey performed by Kyodo News in August 2014, 84.1 percent of the respondents believed that the Abe Government had yet to provide a sufficient explanation regarding collective self-defense.

Then, in a survey conducted by the Japanese Government in January this year, the proportion of respondents who said the SDF should play a more active international role stood at 25.9 percent, down 2.2 percent from a previous survey conducted in 2012. Sixty-eight percent of the respondents polled by Asahi Shimbun in September 2015 felt the passage in the same month of the new security legislation, which entitles the SDF to a more proactive security posture abroad, is unnecessary. Another poll, conducted by Mainichi Shimbun in October 2015, showed that 57 percent of the respondents do not view the new legislation positively, versus only 31 percent of its proponents.

The latest polls conducted by various local news outlets showed that public support for Abe has rebounded, but that was attributed to domestic approval for his pledge to refocus on Japan’s flagging economy ahead of an upper house election next year. As such, the volatile, unpredictable nature of Japan’s domestic political arena amounts to a minefield that Abe needs to navigate carefully if a more assertive SDF role in Southeast Asia is envisaged.

The ‘China in Japan’s Backyard’ Factor

Japan’s security focus remains rooted in its immediate region centered on the East China Sea, Sea of Japan, and the open seas of the Western Pacific. The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands that Beijing also claims has been a thorn in Japan’s side. It is becoming obvious that regular Chinese Coast Guard patrols in those disputed waters are not going away anytime soon, despite the recent thawing of bilateral relations.

In fact, Tokyo has sensed greater urgency to respond to the creeping “up the ante” move by Beijing, such as deploying not just civilian marine survey vessels but a military intelligence-gathering vessel close to the isles. In addition, new Chinese hydrocarbon exploration activities in the East China Sea provoked a strong response from Tokyo. Such tactics can be seen as an attempt by Beijing to confine Japan’s focus to the East China Sea instead of wading into the South China Sea.

Even putting aside the East China Sea disputes, Japanese security planners have sufficient reason to worry about China’s bolder military forays into the Western Pacific, a recent phenomenon that has coincided with China’s growing military power projection capabilities. Regular Chinese military aerial and sea passages through the international Miyako Strait have been watched by the SDF with keen interest.

A Sino-Russian Nexus as a Potential Wild Card?

Japan faces another looming security challenge: a resurgent Russia. The Kuril Islands dispute is a particularly thorny issue, especially following the stalling of negotiations that had resumed under an agreement reached in April 2013. Compounding this has been an incremental Russian military buildup on the islands as well as evidently more assertive Russian military activities. The latter included a August 2014 war game staged on the islands, which prompted a strong protest from Tokyo, and recent allegations of intrusions into Japanese airspace by Russian military aircraft off Hokkaido.

To top it all off, Tokyo now has to face the possibility of at least some form of coordination between the Chinese and Russian militaries, such as the large-scale Sino-Russian naval exercises conducted in the East China Sea and Sea of Japan. There is also the missile and nuclear threat posed by North Korea, which has been consistently highlighted in Japan’s defense white papers.

In its quest to serve as a full partner in a more balanced and effective military alliance with the U.S., Japan will find its role even more firmly entrenched in this immediate region. The present SDF buildup, revolving around the notion of integrated mobile defense espoused in the new National Defense Program Guidelines unveiled in December 2013, is primarily conceived with the aim of safeguarding Japan’s vulnerable remote southwestern isles, including the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Overstretching the SDF?

Finally, factoring in the SDF’s continued focus on Japan’s immediate region, there is little surplus capacity to spare for a regular presence in Southeast Asia, save for occasional naval port calls and an emergency response in time of disaster, such as Super Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013 and the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 the following March. Maintaining a regular SDF presence is not feasible unless Tokyo wishes to detach much needed forces from closer flashpoints such as the East China Sea.

The South China Sea is geographically non-contiguous to Japan, posing a further operational impediment on the SDF. It is about 2,000 km from the nearest Naha Air Base in Okinawa. “It may be possible for our airplanes to just shuttle between Naha and the South China Sea, but it would be difficult for them to stay in the area long enough to conduct surveillance activities,” a senior SDF official admitted.

Tokyo is certainly more concerned about husbanding scarce SDF capacity for use in its immediate region. This situation has a knock-on effect even for its capacity-building assistance programs in Southeast Asia. For example, despite Manila’s desire to obtain P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft from Japan, the latter could at best offer the less capable TC-90; one of the reasons being the high cost of the newly developed P-1, which means the SDF has to retain its existing fleet of Orions, leaving no surplus capacity to spare for foreign donations.

Therefore, beyond the present slate of providing financial, technical and training assistance, until Tokyo manages to accumulate a sufficient critical mass of capacity to allow for more regular SDF presence, it is difficult to envision a more robust maritime pivot to Southeast Asia at any time in the foreseeable future. Abe’s “Proactive Contributor to Peace” banner in Southeast Asia continues to be one beholden not just to domestic political considerations but also to those strategic compulsions that continue to tie the SDF strongly to Japan’s immediate region, so distant from Southeast Asian waters.

Koh Swee Lean Collin is an associate research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies based in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He can be contacted at [email protected]