Japan: From Gunboat Diplomacy to Coast Guard Diplomacy

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Japan: From Gunboat Diplomacy to Coast Guard Diplomacy

In postwar Japan, the coast guard has taken a leading role in defending maritime interests.

Japan: From Gunboat Diplomacy to Coast Guard Diplomacy
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Ootahara

On December 18, 2017, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called a Ministerial Council meeting to discuss his plans in strategically expanding efforts to strengthen the Japanese maritime security system. In particular, he stressed the need for the Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) to be further developed since it has significant roles in attaining his objectives and, most importantly, in promoting international cooperation by sharing Japanese values regarding a free and open maritime order based on the rule of law with relevant countries in order to realize the free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy.

The Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) is also capable of performing these roles effectively. So why were they not tasked to take the lead role in strengthening the Japanese maritime security system? The JMSDF has enough naval power to defend its claim over maritime jurisdiction and protect Japan’s sea lines of communications (SLOC). In this sense, having the JCG take the front seat in the island nation’s maritime strategy is perplexing.

The importance of maritime power for Japan as an island nation has long been recognized. In 1853, U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry entered Edo Bay with his armada of naval ships, threatening Japan with destruction from the sea. This experience taught Japan an important lesson, which they learned immediately. The Japanese mimicked the American strategy of “gunboat diplomacy” during the Tokugawa Period, and use it successfully invade the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan. The Japanese Imperial Navy at the turn of the 19th century was greatly influenced by the teachings of Alfred Thayer Mahan. They recognized the importance of a powerful navy as a trump card in negotiating with other countries. Mahan’s teachings emphasize the interdependence of military and commerce in controlling of the sea. Having learned the applicability of this strategy from the United States, Japan used Mahan though to guide its imperial ambition until the end of World War II.

But after Japan’s defeat in 1945, the U.S.-imposed Peace Constitution restrained the maintenance and growth of the Japanese military. The offensive and aggressive projection of Japanese power to safeguard its national interest abroad had been vanquished; instead, Japan would rely on the American defense umbrella. The Japanese Peace Constitution ruled out again the future use of “gunboat diplomacy,” and postwar public opinion suppressed any attempts at building a strong navy.

As an island nation with scarce resources, the protection of Japan’s SLOC is the most important part of its national interest. The waters of the South China Sea serves as an economic trade passageway linking Japan not just to Southeast Asia, but also the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. AS a result, the South China Sea is a transit route for 80 to 90 percent of Japan’s energy supplies. However, the South China Sea over the past decades has been subjected to various concerns that threaten Japan’s SLOC. These include the threat of piracy, armed robbery at sea, maritime safety issues, and the disputes between the four ASEAN states and China.

Taking into consideration the complicated threats and frailties of the Southeast Asian coastal states in responding to these issues in the South China Sea, and the limitations on Japan’s MSDF, how then can Japan protect its SLOC? Although Japan is under the protection of the U.S. military, the alliance is only limited to the defense of Japanese territory — not to mention that the threats facing Japan’s SLOC do not necessarily require military intervention. These nontraditional security threats looming in the waters of Southeast Asia necessitate maritime law enforcement agencies that can ensure the safe passage of ships. Navigational safety also requires a dedicated agency manned by competent individuals who could maintain and operate lighthouses and vessel traffic centers to prevent maritime incidents.

In response to these threats, a new maritime constabulary force that can effectively address these complicated issues has emerged. The coast guard is now recognized as an effective instrument to be utilized in protecting countries’ SLOC.  As Sam Bateman argued, because of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), states have recognized the need to create another maritime agency, different from the navy, to enforce laws at sea, manage maritime resources and safeguard national interests.

But it is also worth noting the importance of coast guards in developing international/regional cooperation regarding various maritime issues. The JCG has become the center of an emerging Southeast Asian security framework, and this leadership is welcomed by East Asian neighbors and accepted by the Japanese public. The coast guard may hold the key to the establishment of a regional maritime cooperation network acceptable to sovereignty-sensitive countries in Southeast Asia.

Rise of the Japanese White Hulls

The Japan Coast Guard is recognized to be the first coast guard in Asia. It was established in 1948, although it was initially called the Maritime Safety Agency. The JCG has been reorganized many times since its establishment, and its defined roles, specific missions, and maritime jurisdiction have expanded dramatically throughout the years. The most significant changes are its performance of constabulary functions in ensuring the safety of sea lanes. The Tokyo Bay tanker accident in 1974 and the Search and Rescue Agreement in 1983 prompted the JCG to improve its capability in search and rescue, maritime pollution prevention, and firefighting. Since 1996, the white hulls of the MSA/JCG have been increasingly involved in patrolling the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands and other territories disputed with Japan’s East Asian neighbors.

Moreover, the Japan Coast was empowered in maritime law enforcement and maritime security, by the 2001 amendment of the Japan Coast Guard Law, which now permitted, as Richard Samuels put it, the “outright use of force to prevent maritime intrusion and to protect the Japanese homeland.” The amendment of the law became a turning point in the development of the JCG; members of the Japanese Diet concluded that the public could tolerate an increased budget for the Coast Guard since it is identified as a law enforcement institution. This paved the way for the JCG to receive more sophisticated vessels and aircraft.  With the increased capability, expanded mandates, and public acceptance of the importance of the JCG, these white hulls have taken on a bigger role not just within the maritime borders of Japan but in the Asia Pacific region.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, which preoccupied Japan’s maritime strategy during the Cold War, the new emerging threat for Japan’s SLOC was piracy in the Malacca Strait.

This prompted the JCG to invite Southeast Asian marine police for training in Japan in the 1990s. Later, pirate attacks involving the Japanese freighter MV Tenyu in 1998 and Japanese cargo ship MV Alondra Rainbow in 1999 prompted Japan to initiate counterpiracy cooperation in the Malacca Strait. Then-Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi made an unprecedented proposal for JCG vessels to patrol the strait in partnership with concerned coastal states, but this suggestion was rejected. Instead, the Japanese government called for a conference involving relevant stakeholders, law enforcement agencies, and International Maritime Organizations (IMO), which would give birth to Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), the first intergovernmental anti-piracy agreement and the inauguration of annual Head of Asian Coast Guard Agencies Meeting (HACGAM).

Coast Guard Emergence in Southeast Asia

Through its assistance in capacity building in Southeast Asia using the JCG, Japan not only protects its own sea lanes but also demonstrates its values as a regional security partner to other littoral states. Over the past decades, the emergence of coast guard agencies in the region was catalyzed by the support of the Japanese government through Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)’s Overseas Development Assistance. This is not just limited to sponsoring training, but it also includes funding hardware like patrol ships.

In 2005, the newly established Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) asked for the JCG’s help in training its personnel. In cooperation with JICA in March 2006, Japan gave two navigation vessels to the MMEA to help in their anti-piracy efforts. The JCG also continuously provided training and technical assistance to MMEA in a partnership that continues today.

Likewise, Japan has been involved with the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) for decades. In 1998, immediately after being categorized as a civilian uniformed maritime service, the PCG received a 60-meter buoy tender from Japan to develop its capability for maritime safety and maritime pollution.  In 2002, Japan sponsored a five-year training program entitled the JICA-PCG Human Resource Development (JICA-PCG HRD) initiative, with the objective of enhancing the capabilities of Filipino personnel through a range of law enforcement training courses and activities. By 2007 Japan had already trained 2,000 Philippine Coast Guard officials in various aspects of maritime security operations, which included combined exercises with the JCG. In 2013, a year after the Scarborough Shoal incident pitting the Philippines against China, JICA approved a loan for the construction of 10 40-meter Multi-Role Response Vessels (MRRV).

Vietnam’s Marine Police was founded in 1998 and became the Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG), independent from the navy, in 2008. Since then, Japan has actively supported the VCG through training and human resources development, as well as joint exercises between the JCG and VCG was conducted in September. Moreover, the Japanese government has also expressed its commitment in developing the VCG by supplying needed equipment and ships through developmental aid.

With regards to Indonesia, the JCG in cooperation with JICA assisted in the establishment of the Indonesian BAKORKAMLA, which serves as a maritime law enforcement coordination body. The Japanese government provided three patrol boats to enhance the capability of the Indonesian marine police in conducting counterpiracy operations in 2006 and provided a multimillion dollar grant to establish a vessel traffic system for effective maritime domain awareness monitoring in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore.

The Japanese government has selectively funded and supported these four countries in Southeast Asia – Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam — to further develop their coast guard agencies. This is because these countries are coastal states along Japan’s SLOC. The demilitarized character of the Japan Coast Guard made it easier to sell white hull cooperation both to the Japanese people and the governments of these four coastal states.


For an island nation with scarce resources and that is reliant on sea trade route for its survival, Japan must constantly recalibrate its maritime strategy. The previous Mahanian strategy of gunboat diplomacy opened Japan’s eyes to the importance of controlling maritime space. However, for today’s pacifist Japan, military control is no longer an option to protect their sea trade.

Japan has instead redefined their diplomacy by utilizing the Japan Coast Guard as an effective foreign policy instrument. The coast guard diplomacy that they have been using in the past years is an effective approach to convince littoral states that cooperation benefits both parties. The resulting boost to the development of coast guards in the Southeast Asian region has significantly redefined that coast guard’s role in maritime security and in maintaining a peaceful maritime order.

Jay Tristan Tarriela is a commissioned officer of the Philippine Coast Guard with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and is currently a Ph.D. student at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo, Japan. He is also a Young Leader with Pacific Forum CSIS, Honolulu.