Japan’s own “pivot” to East Asia has been on full display over the last two months as Tokyo’s efforts to lay the foundation for a more proactive approach to countering Beijing’s growing maritime assertiveness begin to bear fruit.
The flurry of recent activity in the region by Japan comes ahead of a Group of Seven leaders’ summit in Mie Prefecture next month and a verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Philippine case against China’s “nine-dash line” claims to much of the disputed South China Sea.
Tokyo’s ramped-up moves appear to be the culmination of months of plans, often made in conjunction with allies and other claimants to waters in the South China Sea, to ratchet up pressure on a recalcitrant Beijing.
Dubbed the “Great Wall of Sand” by Adm. Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, China’s massive island-building program — and its alleged militarization of the contested waters — has stoked anger among Southeast Asian claimants, including Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as countries with vital interests in the waters, such as the United States, Australia, Indonesia and Japan.
Analysts say the island-building and aggressive moves by China have pushed Southeast Asian nations closer to both the U.S. and Japan.
“Overall, I think China’s continued provocative moves in the South China Sea are alarming many and making this kind of diplomacy possible,” said James Schoff, with the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “So Japan’s approach is perhaps better thought through, but it’s China’s actions that are making it successful.”
While Washington has conducted what it calls freedom of navigation operations in the disputed waters, Tokyo has been quietly helping Southeast Asian nations to beef up their maritime security capabilities, ostensibly to help counter China.
“Japan is steadily increasing its contribution to regional security,” said Patrick Cronin, a senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). “Building partnerships with South China Sea claimant states such as the Philippines and Vietnam, Japan is simultaneously deepening strategic partnerships with Australia, India, and others.”
These contributions have included not only the provision of patrol vessels for Vietnam and the Philippines, but other, less tangible efforts such as upgraded defense ties and exchanges and assistance for countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to help boost their capabilities at sea.
“The key goal is to stabilize a region anxious about Chinese assertiveness,” Cronin said.
Over the last two months these Japanese efforts have hit a fever pitch.
In a rare port call Tuesday, two Maritime Self-Defense guided-missile destroyers made the first visit of its kind to Vietnam. The visit to Cam Ranh Bay, home to a sprawling naval and air base — the crown jewel of Vietnam’s military — had been announced last November. It came after the two vessels, accompanied by an MSDF submarine, made a similar trip to Subic Bay in the Philippines for drills. That visit was the first by a Japanese submarine in more than a decade.
Speaking at a news conference Tuesday, Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said the visit to Cam Ranh Bay would strengthen the two countries’ growing security ties as well as help to guarantee freedom of navigation and keep sea lanes secure in the South China Sea.
About $5 trillion in global trade passes through those sea lanes each year, including vast amounts of cargo shipped to and from Japan each day.
“It’s from this point of view that we are both making these port calls and helping countries in the area of the South China Sea like Vietnam and the Philippines to bolster their capabilities,” Nakatani said, adding that Japan would continue to strengthen its ties with the U.S., Australia and other nations through joint drills in the region.
The Vietnam visit coincided with the arrival of the MSDF’s 13,950-ton Hyuga-class helicopter destroyer Ise for the Indonesian Navy-led Komodo Exercises, which kicked off Tuesday in the waters off the western Indonesian city of Padang. It also came on the heels of talks Monday between Nakatani and Australia’s army chief to boost joint training.
Tokyo’s focus on Southeast Asia also comes as it attempts to give its fledgling arms export industry a shot in the arm.
“Japan has a strong interest in exporting weapon systems and platforms to like-minded states to help support Japan’s own struggling defense industry,” said Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. Japanese friendship visits now feature higher-end Japanese capabilities that domestic firms would like to sell overseas, including P3-C anti-submarine planes and Soryu submarines, Cook added.
But perhaps more importantly, Japan’s moves come as it plays host to the G-7 leaders’ summit next month.
At the conclusion of the G-7 foreign ministers’ meeting Monday in the atomic bomb-hit city of Hiroshima, the top diplomats of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States released a statement expressing strong opposition to “intimidating, coercive or provocative unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions.”
In the maritime security statement, which did not specifically single out China, the ministers also stressed the importance of the “peaceful management and settlement of maritime disputes” through “internationally recognized legal dispute settlement mechanisms, including arbitration” — a clear jab at Beijing and its pending case with the Philippines. China has said it will neither accept nor participate in any arbitration that it says is “illegally forced” upon it.
“Tokyo’s burst of activity is undoubtedly timed to the diplomatic agenda,” said Cronin. “From hosting a G-7 meeting that focused on maritime and other security issues, to anticipating the forthcoming international tribunal judgment on the law of the sea, Japan is backing up its political goals with firmness and action.”
Tensions over the South China Sea are likely to remain high this spring, Cronin said, with a U.S. freedom of navigation operation around Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s visit this week to the Philippines sure to elicit angry denunciation in Beijing.
“Japan and the region hope China will become more cooperative, but they are prepared for the opposite,” Cronin added.
Whether or not Tokyo’s recent whirlwind of activities translate to actual patrols or joint patrols by the MSDF, however, remains to be seen.
“Japan now has created the legal and policy foundation on which to participate in multilateral patrols in the South China Sea,” said Cronin. “But I would be surprised if Japan were to join a joint patrol, at least not without a major new provocation from China. Instead, I expect Prime Minister Abe to hew to making a proactive but independent Japanese contribution to peace.”