For the third straight year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called a Ministerial Council meeting emphasizing the importance of the Japan Coast Guard’s diverse and evolving roles in safeguarding Japanese interests in its waters and adjacent maritime spaces. He vowed to enhance the capability of the JCG through the acquisition of additional vessels and aircraft. Since Abe assumed office in 2012, he has continuously used the Japan Coast Guard not just to ensure safety and security within Japan’s domestic waters but even in maritime diplomacy with other countries within the Indo-Pacific.
Learning from his predecessors and acting in line with Japan’s pacifist constitution, Abe has recognized that utilization of gray ships cannot be the best course of action in responding to the threats within its maritime jurisdiction and along sea trade routes. The established coast guard cooperation of Japan in the Indo-Pacific region, which was laid down before he even became the prime minister, became the primary foundation of Abe’s maritime diplomacy — that is, using the combined approaches of maritime safety, marine environmental protection, and maritime law enforcement to advance Japan’s interest in maintaining a rule-based maritime order.
JCG’s Institutional Reforms
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi can be recognized as the first Japanese premier who placed heavy importance on the JCG; it was during his term that the JCG law was amended to permit its “use of force” in law enforcement. However, Abe’s institutional reforms of the JCG are still more remarkable. In his first year, Abe for the first time appointed a JCG commandant that came from its officer corps, contravening the usual practice of appointing a bureaucrat from the transport ministry. Just recently, the Japanese prime minister appointed a JCG commandant that graduated from Japan Coast Guard Academy for the third consecutive time.
It was also during Abe’s tenure that the JCG was given a substantial budget increase annually, with the primary objective of developing its maritime security capability specifically in maritime domain awareness and maritime patrols. In 2017, 27 percent of the JCG’s budget was used in improving the capability of JCG ships that are tasked to patrol the waters off the Senkaku Islands, which Japan administers but China also claims. Furthermore, it is also worth highlighting that Abe has supported the development of Ishikagi Island, turning it into a coast guard fortress that serves as berthing space for numerous large JCG patrol ships that are ready for dispatch 24/7.
Abe has also made it clear that the JCG has his personal attention. Besides calling an annual ministerial meeting since 2016, he had been attending important JCG events, including the coast guard fleet review (which was first attended by Prime Minister Taro Aso in 2009) and the graduation ceremonies at Japan Coast Guard Academy in Kure City and Japan Coast Guard School in Maizuru City.
Support to Southeast Asian Coast Guards
While it is true that the Japanese government had been supporting the development of coast guards in Southeast Asia since the early 2000s, during Abe’s tenure a particularly large amount of Japan’s overseas development assistance (ODA) has been used to strengthen the capacity of these organizations.
There are three reasons why Abe embraced the practicality of coast guard diplomacy. First, the pacifist constitution of Japan restricts many areas of defense diplomacy, but it does not prohibit Tokyo from providing coast guard vessels to other countries using ODA. It is much easier for Abe to justify to the Japanese public that the coast guard vessels that they are funding are needed to support the safety and security of Japan’s trade. Second, the long-established cooperation of the JCG, particularly in Southeast Asia, in the context of maritime safety, marine environmental protection, and maritime law enforcement, provides the most robust foundation for maritime cooperation. The recipient Southeast Asian countries trusted that Abe’s coast guard initiatives had no hidden agenda and that the maritime order they are encouraged to support is for the benefit of Indo-Pacific. The final reason is that coast guard diplomacy symbolizes positive aspects of cooperation. It does not undermine either side’s interests and addresses major concerns of the region, from search and rescue to pollution prevention, counterpiracy operations, and the safety of life and property at sea.
In Southeast Asia, Abe’s efforts have focused specifically on the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG), Indonesia’s Bakamla, and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA). It is worth mentioning that the countries of these organizations are located along Japan’s major sea trade route, along which its imports of energy resources and raw materials pass. Likewise, all of these countries have a territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, except for Indonesia – and even Jakarta has concerns about Chinese encroachment on its claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Capitalizing on the South China Sea row, Abe supported the delivery of 10 44-meter Multi-Role Response Vessels (MRRV) funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for the PCG. Additionally, there is another JICA project already on the pipeline: the construction of the PCG’s first two 94-meter offshore patrol vessels worth 16.455 billion yen ($150 million). In the case of Vietnam, in 2014 Japan transferred six used vessels worth 400 million yen to the Vietnam Directorate of Fisheries, a deal also financed by JICA. Abe promised additional upcoming six brand new coast guard vessels during his visit in Hanoi in 2016. The MMEA received two retired JCG offshore patrol vessels in 2017; one of these remains the largest vessel in the MMEA’s inventory.
Ostensibly, Abe is strategically utilizing Japan’s ODA to improve and strengthen the capacity of these Southeast Asian coast guards — particularly by giving them patrol ships that could support the region’s interest in maritime law enforcement and maritime security. Furthermore, JICA’s projects are not just limited to providing hardware for Southeast Asia. Then and now it has maintained a yearlong calendar of training activities that could support the human resource development of coast guard officers. These JICA short courses are either conducted in Japan or various Southeast Asian countries.
Among these JCG facilitated trainings funded by JICA, the Maritime Safety and Security Policy Program, started in 2015, is the most intriguing. This is a master’s degree program administered jointly by the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and Japan Coast Guard Academy to coast guard officers in Asia. The total number of students per year is only 10, while two slots are reserved for prospective JCG students. The first batch of students was composed of two coast guard officers each coming from the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Japan. However, the succeeding batches included officers from the Sri Lanka Coast Guard and India Coast Guard.
Abe mentioned the importance of this program in maintaining the maritime order in the Indo-Pacific when he delivered his address at 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly. Every year, the graduates of this program come back to Japan for an alumni event with the objective of maintaining and strengthening the human network among the graduates. At the same time, they are also given the opportunity to meet Abe every year.
Abe has been using education and training as an approach to instill the coast guard officers of Southeast Asia with the idea that the maritime order he is advocating is in line with the rule of law. That encourages these coast guard officers to seek cooperation in countering those states or nonstate actors that choose to undermine the maritime order. This is a long-term planned investment, in the hopes that coast guard officers educated and trained in Japan will eventually take the lead role in defining their respective maritime strategies, and will craft strategies in line with Tokyo’s interest and for the benefit of the region.
Japan’s Coast Guard Diplomacy Beyond Southeast Asia
In dissecting the coast guard cooperation of Japan, it can be perceived that they have chosen to establish their strongest ties with those countries bordering important sea trade routes. After the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, the sea trade route of Japan enters the Indian Ocean. This explains why Abe supports the development of the Sri Lanka Coast Guard (SCG) and why he revitalized the Memorandum of Cooperation (MOC) that the JCG and Indian Coast Guard signed in 2006. Using JICA’s ODA, Japan provided two fast patrol vessels (FPVs) to the SCG last year, amounting to 1.8 billion yen. Though Japan has not provided boats to India, these two countries have been actively participating in their biennial search and rescue exercises.
After the Indian Ocean, the Japanese sea trade route resumes in the Gulf of Aden then passes to the Suez Canal. This is the last leg to be crossed in order for Japanese products to reach the European market. In recent years, Somalian pirates in this area had been a problem for the safety and security of Japanese sea trade. Although Japan had been involved in counterpiracy operations even before Abe, through the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF), Abe made the decision to use ODA to develop the capability of the Djibouti Coast Guard, which neighbors Somalia. In 2015, the DCG received two brand new patrol boats from Japan with a price tag of 924 million yen.
Remarkably, then, Abe is strengthening maritime cooperation with countries that border its sea trade routes far beyond Southeast Asia. Abe is using ODA to strengthen their respective coast guard’s capabilities. This does not just support Japan interests, but it also serves the best interest of the receiving countries since they now have platforms that could ensure a safe, clean, secure, and peaceful sea.
Maintaining Maritime Order
The role of the JCG is now evolving. It is now being used as an agent of positive cooperation and preventive diplomacy in maintaining the maritime order. In October 2018, during Abe’s visit to China, both countries signed an agreement on cooperation for maritime search and rescue. This agreement had been on the backburner since 2012, when Japan nationalized several of the Senkaku Islands. Ironically, though Japan had been beefing up its coast guard to patrol this contested territory, Abe was successful in pushing for a SAR agreement with Beijing.
Interestingly, in October 2018 a JCG patrol ship had its first port visit to Australia, which coincided with Abe’s visit and meeting with Prime Minister Scott Morrison. During their joint press statements, both leaders highlighted the importance of increased cooperation in supporting maritime safety and security of the region.
During the 8th Summit with Pacific Island Nations held in Japan last year, Abe emphasized the importance of a maritime order based on the rule of law in the Pacific and encouraged the cooperation of everyone, while at the same time pledging Japanese support. Some analysts contend that Abe’s approach in consolidating support during the summit was a bid to counter the Chinese dominance in providing aid to these island nations. In order to highlight his objective of rule-based maritime cooperation, JCG officers were dispatched to the Pacific Island nations to train their law enforcement officers in curbing illegal fishing. Likewise, maritime law enforcement boats were given by the Japanese government and the Nippon Foundation to ensure their capability in responding to illegal fishing and search and rescue operations.
Thanks to Abe’s strategy, the JCG has evolved from what it was before when he first took office. Today the JCG is not solely focused on protecting the domestic interest or even the protection of Japan’s sea trade routes. Now the JCG is at the frontlines of Japan’s diplomacy and strategy for the Indo-Pacific. Through the JCG, Japan can rightfully claim that despite its pacifist constitution, it still has a significant role to play as a partner for the stability of a region guided by the rule of law.
Jay Tristan Tarriela is a commissioned officer of the Philippine Coast Guard with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and is currently a Ph.D. candidate and a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) scholar at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) under the GRIPS Global Governance (G-cube) Program in Tokyo, Japan. He is also a Young Leader with Pacific Forum CSIS, Honolulu.