Since Japan has taken a major step toward defending other countries, nations in Southeast Asia are paying attention to the move as a potential way to rein in China’s recent muscle-flexing.
However, there are limits to what Japan’s troops can do in Asia, experts say.
“It is an era where a country can no longer defend itself on its own,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a news conference after his Cabinet approved bills on Thursday to drastically change Japan’s exclusively defense-oriented security policy.
The prime minister’s remarks were seen as underscoring the need to team up with the international community.
Faced with Beijing’s growing maritime and airborne assertiveness as well as North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Japan has not only fortified its alliance with the United States through new defense guidelines, but sought closer cooperation with other nations, including those in Southeast Asia who are facing off with Beijing over territorial disputes.
Although Japan and the United States are not directly involved in the disputes in the South China Sea, the leaders of Japan and America are on the same page when it comes to concerns about China’s land reclamation work.
“Rather than resolve these issues through normal international dispute settlements, they are flexing their muscles,” President Barack Obama said at a joint news conference with Abe on April 28 in Washington. “And we’ve said to China what we would say to any country in that circumstance: That’s the wrong way to go about it.”
China lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea, while parts of it are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
“Generally, we see (Japan’s growing security role) as a positive development, especially in light of the continuous buildup of China and artificial structures and many reefs in the contested areas of the South China Sea,” said Clarita Carlos, a professor of political science at the University of the Philippines.
“Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines are really talking about collective actions vis-a-vis any country — and we don’t just mean China — which jeopardizes or puts into peril our regional security,” Carlos said. “That is good because it’s always good to have collective actions rather than unilateral action.”
China has balked at attempts to settle territorial rowson the multilateral stage, preferring to settle the spats bilaterally with its smaller Asian opponents.
Still, ASEAN has used its gatherings to take a united stand against China. In their summit last month in Malaysia, the leaders expressed “serious concerns” over Beijing’s reclamation activities. ASEAN and China have yet to draw up a legally binding regional code of conduct in the South China Sea.
Takashi Kawakami, a professor at Takushoku University in Tokyo, said the security bills have “expanded the geographical parameters of the Self-Defense Forces’ activities” and Japan, with its stronger security push and alliance with the United States, is “contributing to regional deterrence.”
“It is good for everyone in the region including Japan for that matter and ASEAN to keep on reminding China that if it is applying to be a superpower, it should not make a reckless move as it is doing right now,” Carlos said. “It should be acting as a responsible superpower because that is what we expect of it.”
Media reports say that the United States is considering deploying military aircraft and ships near disputed islands that are located in the resource-rich South China Sea.
Washington is keen for Tokyo to share security commitments in the region, but Japan — with its own tensions with China over the Japanese-controlled, Chinese-claimed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea — is mum on whether it will consider getting involved in operations such as joint patrols in the South China Sea, a move likely to irk Beijing.
The “U.S. expectation is big and so is the expectation of the Philippines, but how much can the SDF actually do?” Kawakami said.
Japan has continued to bolster maritime cooperation with Vietnam and the Philippines, partly through provision of patrol boats. Tokyo and Manila have also recently held bilateral sea exercises to boost their forces’ interoperability.
But Japanese Foreign Ministry sources said it is hard at the moment to give specific examples such as which military, apart from the U.S. forces, Japan can provide logistical support to or whether the SDF plans to operate in the South China Sea.
While Japan does not want South China Sea tensions to escalate, some experts believe that the country is unlikely to go the extra mile for its Asian neighbors to deter China at a time when Japan and China are patching up their relations and the SDF is also trying to beef up its defense of the remote southern islands, which it views as at risk of so-called gray zone attacks.
“The resources that Japan has and its willingness to take risks remain very limited,” said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies of Temple University in Tokyo.
While the planned legislation expands the scope of overseas operations by Japanese troops, it does not mean Japan will send them to combat zones or launch a pre-emptive attack.
“The idea that Japan is a danger to peace is something that’s essentially the figment of Chinese propaganda or individuals who don’t understand the historical and political context of Japan,” Dujarric said.