In recent years, Japan has been stepping up its involvement with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries in the realm of security. Since the Cold War, Japan has been steadily bolstering ties with these countries in the form of bilateral defense “exchanges” primarily centered on high-level consultations and working-level talks, and multilateral security “dialogues” with the goals of building mutual confidence and improving transparency. More recently, however, Japan has moved to a higher degree of “cooperation” – including bilateral military exercises and agreements on defense equipment – with certain ASEAN member states. With developments such as the first-ever defense ministers’ meeting between Japan and ASEAN member countries in November 2014, the ASEAN bloc is now becoming one of Japan’s major regional partners on security issues, following the United States, Australia, South Korea and India.
The distinguishing characteristics of Japanese “defense diplomacy” as applied to ASEAN can be summarized by the following three points: expansion of presence, strengthening of partnerships, and sharing of norms and general rules via such partnerships.
The first point is the expansion of Japan’s presence through initiatives such as the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) making port at and/or visiting ASEAN member countries, or participating in bilateral or multilateral joint military exercises. In March 2016, a JMSDF vessel made port in Malaysia for the first time in three years, and the following month the JMSDF participated in friendly training drills with the Royal Malaysian Navy. In April 2016, the JMSDF submarine Oyashio, along with JMSDF destroyers Ariake and Setogiri, made port at Subic Bay in the Philippines, the first such visit in approximately 15 years. After that, Ariake and Setogiri made port at Cam Ranh Bay in southern Vietnam for the first time. During that time, the large JMSDF destroyer Ise crossed the South China Sea for the first time to participate in an international fleet review and multilateral exercises held in Indonesia.
Meanwhile, the JSDF participated in joint military exercises together with the U.S. and Australia in February 2016, in waters between Singapore and India; and again in April 2016, in the vicinity of Indonesia. Japan is also taking steps to bolster its presence in the region through other activities as part of multilateral frameworks, for instance by dispatching a sizeable contingent of JSDF troops (the third largest among participating countries) to participate in joint maritime security exercises held by the expanded ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM-Plus) taking place in the waters and airspace between Brunei and Singapore.
The second point is Japan’s strengthening of partnerships through capacity building assistance and cooperation with defense equipment. Japan has already resolved to donate ten multi-purpose vessels to the Philippines using Official Development Assistance (ODA) grants, and it has also been agreed – based on the “Agreement Between the Government of Japan and the Government of the Republic of the Philippines Concerning the Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology” signed in February 2016 – that Japan will lease retired JMSDF TC90 trainer aircraft to the Philippine Navy. In July, Japan also provided its first ever capacity building assistance to the Philippines in relation to diesel engine maintenance for naval vessels. With Vietnam too, in addition to the donation of six used vessels to the Vietnamese Navy, Japan is also advancing talks on the supply of newly built ships at some point in the near future. Similarly, in light of the inaugural Japan-Indonesia Foreign and Defense Ministerial Consultation (“2+2”) held in December 2015, the following March, Japan carried out a capacity building assistance program for the Indonesian Navy on the creation of nautical charts.
More recently, Japan has stretched its security partnership towards “continental” ASEAN member states such as Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. In February 2016, the Japanese Ministry of Defense held its first seminar on disaster response for the Lao People’s Armed Forces; and in April and May 2016, capacity building support in relation to international aviation law and flight safety was carried out for Thai Ministry of Defense personnel. In June, a meeting was held between Japanese Minister of Defense Nakatani Gen and Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor and Minister of Foreign Affairs for Myanmar. The two ministers agreed that the JSDF would provide capacity improvement assistance in areas such as humanitarian aid and disaster relief, while bilateral educational exchange would be bolstered. According to the Ministry of Defense, this was the first time Suu Kyi had held talks with the defense minister of another country.
There is no doubt that the situation in the South China Sea is behind these efforts by the Ministry of Defense and the JSDF to expand Japan’s presence and strengthen partnerships in the region. On June 12, 2016, an arbitral tribunal at The Hague (in the Netherlands) rendered the award that there is no legal basis for China’s “nine-dashed line” claims in the South China Sea. After the award was announced, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately announced its view that the judgment was final and legally binding on the parties to the dispute under the provisions of UNCLOS, and the parties to this case are required to comply with the award. At the Japan-United States-Australia Trilateral Strategic Dialogue held that same month, a joint statement was issued, calling on both China and the Philippines to observe and abide by the tribunal’s award.
Yet strengthening defense diplomacy toward ASEAN does not mean that Japan is “taking sides” with either one of the contesting states in disputes over the South China Sea. As we have seen, while Japan is strengthening ties with some of the contesting nations in the South China Sea, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, it is also seeking to offer capacity building assistance and strengthen its partnerships with non-contesting states. Similarly, Japan’s supplying of equipment to countries in Southeast Asia is mainly for the purpose of bolstering their capacity to respond to so-called “Grey Zone” situations before they escalate into (military) contingencies, such as in conducting marine surveillance and the prevention of accidental collisions; and is not designed to bolster the military capabilities of these countries per se. Indeed, the initiative can be viewed as an attempt to prevent the escalation of such situations from the grey zone to actual military conflict between the armed forces of such countries by narrowing the gap between the Chinese Coast Guard and those of other littoral states.
At the same time, the expansion of Japan’s presence in the Southeast Asian region is providing greater opportunities for cooperation with China. In the ADMM-Plus joint maritime security exercises mentioned noted above, the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) agreement – signed by numerous Western Pacific nations including China – was used for the first time. Japan has also used CUES in holding bilateral maritime exercises with countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam, and in the future it is conceivable that Japan might also conduct similar kinds of exercises with the Chinese Navy. In addition to the formation of a maritime contact mechanism between the two countries, for which negotiations are currently underway, such exercises will surely prove to be instrumental in encouraging the establishment of Japan-China crisis management mechanisms.
In short, the activities that Japan is conducting in this region are intended neither to increase tension in the region by unilaterally taking sides in territorial disputes, nor to assist the military expansion of countries in the region to encourage their competition against a specific country. In fact, the purpose is quite the opposite. Japan is seeking to share the norms and general rules that form the basis for order and stability in the region, such as the rule of law and ASEAN centrality, by strengthening security relationships with the whole of the ASEAN bloc. The promotion of defense diplomacy towards ASEAN member countries are an effective means of achieving higher-order political goals such as these.
Tomohiko Satake, Fellow, Defense Policy Division, Policy Studies Department at the National Institute for Defense Studies. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of NIDS or the Ministry of Defense, Japan.