Saturday’s lead story in The Japan Times, “Japan weighs course of action in disputed South China Sea,” notes that “some senior U.S. military and diplomatic officials have pressed Abe to dispatch the Self-Defense Forces on joint patrols with the United States in the South China Sea.” While the officials are not further identified, the article later states that U.S. Pacific Command chief Admiral Harry Harris has said that “the U.S. would welcome Japanese participation during patrol operations in the South China Sea.”

Well, not exactly. What Harris actually said — in an interview with Asahi Shimbun National Security Correspondent Yoichi Kato in June — is “I view the South China Sea as international water, not territorial water of any country, and so Japan is welcome to conduct operations on the high seas as Japan sees fit.”

Thus far, Japan has wisely not seen fit to do so. Japanese officials have repeatedly said Japan “currently has no such plan” to send Maritime Self-Defense Force ships to the South China Sea but usually add the caveat that it “may consider doing so” depending on how the situation develops. They also acknowledge that the U.S. has not officially asked Japan to participate in joint patrols in the South China Sea — nor should it.

The greatest maritime challenge to Japan’s national security interests is in the East China Sea, not the South China Sea (illegal as Chinese claims to 12-mile limits around man-made islands which would otherwise remain under water at high tide might be), and that is where Tokyo should be (and indeed is) focusing its attention.

Actively challenging China’s questionable territorial claims in the South China Sea will likely cause an increase in aggressive Chinese naval activity against the Japan’s Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu Islands by China) and would thus prove counterproductive to Japan’s security interests.

However, the reverse should also be true. While the situation in the East China Sea appears relatively stable at present, should Beijing once again become more aggressive in asserting its claims to the Senkaku Islands, Tokyo should announce that, as a quid pro quo, Japanese freedom of navigation (FON) patrols may start taking place in the South China Sea.

In this case, Japanese actions in the South China Sea would not stimulate an aggressive Chinese response in the East China Sea but themselves be the result of Chinese provocations. Chinese actions would be the cause; Japanese patrols would be the effect, as opposed to the other way around.

All this is not to say that Japan does not have an important role to play in Southeast Asia. But I would argue that its role should be focused not on maritime challenges (a U.S. specialty for many years, and not just against specious Chinese claims) but on maritime capacity building.

Japan is already a leader in this field, helping to establish a ReCAAP (Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia) to enhance regional anti-piracy efforts and taking a lead role in bringing regional coast guards together. Its offer of 10 coast guard patrol boats to the Philippines was another positive step in this direction, as was the agreement (announced last Friday during Defense Minister Gen Nakatani’s visit to Vietnam) to accelerate maritime training and exchange programs, including a promised visit by a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel to the Cam Ranh Bay naval base within a year.

Almost all the maritime nations of Southeast Asia have one thing in common: They are ill-equipped to monitor, much less defend, their own sovereign territory and exclusive economic zones. These nations would welcome an increase in Japanese maritime-capacity-building efforts, which should take the form not just of patrol boat deliveries, but also by providing surveillance and telecommunications equipment, plus more joint military training and exercises during more frequent ship visits and alongside regional humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and search and rescue multilateral training efforts. Focusing its overseas development assistance to address maritime capacity shortfalls would also pay huge dividends to Japan’s friends in Southeast Asia.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other senior Japanese officials are becoming more frequent visitors to Southeast Asia and this renewed focus on this important region is well-appreciated and long overdue.

Sending Japanese ships to conduct FON patrols in the region is not the most effective use of Japanese maritime resources, however, and could prove counterproductive in the absence of increased Chinese aggressiveness in the East China Sea. Instead Tokyo should continue to focus its efforts on maritime capacity building, an area where even a modest contribution can make a big difference.

Ralph Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu and senior editor of the Forum’s quarterly electronic journal, Comparative Connections. He is the primary U.S. representative and former international cochair of the ASEAN Regional Forum Experts and Eminent Persons Group, as well as a founding member and current cochair of the multinational Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific. This article is a slightly revised version of an article that appeared in PacNet Newsletter.

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