LONDON – Over the past year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has embarked upon a drive to cultivate closer bilateral maritime security ties with Southeast Asian nations. Abe’s concerted maritime diplomacy strategy has unfolded in response to growing Chinese assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, where Japan and several ASEAN states remain locked in intractable territorial disputes with China. Amid heightened tensions, Japan is seeking new maritime defense partnerships to boost naval capacity and ensure the continued security of East Asia’s economically-vital sea lanes.
Japan, as a resource-poor island nation, has long possessed a strong national interest in ensuring the safe passage of maritime commerce through the region’s crowded waterways. Japan relies on imported oil and gas — mostly from the Middle East — for around 85 percent of its domestic energy needs, two-thirds of which is shipped through the contested waters of the South China Sea after transiting the narrow Malacca Strait chokepoint. Ensuring the free-flow of seaborne traffic in the region has therefore always been of vital economic importance to Japan.
In light of China’s growing maritime assertiveness, Japan’s imperative to protect its surrounding waters is now even greater. In the East China Sea, Beijing unilaterally declared an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in 2013, and has since launched armed naval patrols close to the disputed Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan. In the South China Sea, Beijing has stirred tensions with the Philippines and Vietnam after undertaking extensive land reclamation and building military outposts on disputed islands. In response to these twin escalations, Japan has reached out to Southeast Asian nations to counter Chinese dominance of the region’s seas.
Abe’s strategy has centered on enhancing bilateral defense relationships with key ASEAN states, placing a particular focus on maritime security cooperation.
Following a meeting with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte last year, Abe committed to providing two 90-meter patrol ships and 10 smaller vessels, in addition to five TC-90 reconnaissance planes, to boost the Philippines’ naval capabilities. And in January of this year the two countries’ coast guards signed a memorandum of cooperation, as Abe committed a ¥600 million grant to enable the purchase of high-speed boats and counter-terrorism equipment for the Philippine Coast Guard.
In December 2016, Japan and Indonesia established the Japan-Indonesia Maritime Forum to facilitate deepened cooperation between the two countries’ navies. As part of the agreement, it is expected that Tokyo will assist with the construction of ports and the development of remote islands, improving Indonesia’s capability to defend its maritime sovereignty. During a state visit to Jakarta in January, Abe and his Indonesian counterpart, Joko Widodo, labeled maritime cooperation as the “highest priority” in the bilateral defense relationship.
Japan has also enhanced its security ties with Vietnam, following a visit to Tokyo in June by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. The two leaders said they shared “deep concern” over recent developments in the South China Sea, while signing an agreement for ¥38 billion in Japanese aid to upgrade Vietnamese Coast Guard vessels and improve their patrol capability. Following the announcement, Abe said enhanced maritime cooperation between the two countries was designed to strengthen “a free and open international order based on the rule of law,” in a clear reference to China’s attempts to alter the status quo in the East and South China Seas.
Japan’s strengthened maritime alliances with Indonesia — the de-facto leader of ASEAN — along with Vietnam and the Philippines — the two foremost ASEAN claimants in the South China Sea dispute — aim to counter the threat posed to the region’s sea lanes by an increasingly assertive China.
The new arrangements also align with Japan’s wider military strategy since the controversial reinterpretation of Article 9 in the country’s war-renouncing postwar Constitution, which has prompted the adoption of a more outward-looking defense posture under Abe. Japan’s government recently approved a record ¥5.1 trillion defense budget along with an expanded Coast Guard budget of ¥210 billion, facilitating the addition of five large surveillance ships and three smaller research vessels to the Coast Guard’s 14-strong fleet.
As well as improving its domestic naval capabilities, Japan has conducted more frequent military drills at sea with the United States, its long-standing ally. In June, a three-day joint military exercise was conducted in the Sea of Japan, involving two ships from Japan’s Self-Defense Forces deployed alongside the USS Ronald Reagan and USS Carl Vinson. The drill also involved Japanese F-15 jets taking part in simulated combat operations alongside U.S. Navy F-18 fighters. Later the same month, a second joint exercise was carried out in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Japan’s Izumo helicopter carrier and Sazanami destroyer participated in drills alongside U.S. vessels, putting on a visible show of force in the region’s most contested yet strategically important body of water.
In response to emerging geopolitical risks, Japan is rapidly positioning itself as the regional leader in maritime security cooperation. Japan has demonstrated its steadfast commitment to its own naval expansion, whilst at the same time supporting other nations in bolstering their capabilities. In the last year, Abe has focused great attention on cultivating defense relationships and developing closer naval ties with Southeast Asian states, seeking to build increased regional capacity through a series of cooperative bilateral agreements.
Japan’s new partnerships have been consistently backed-up by Abe’s rhetoric of preserving the “international order” and ensuring “rule of law” at sea. Through a concerted strategy of maritime diplomacy, Japan is seeking to upgrade the existing regional condition of limited inter-state cooperation over localized issues — such as piracy — to more substantive region-wide maritime cooperation based on shared interests, common threats and larger-scale problems, such as defending East Asia’s vital sea lanes and countering China’s growing influence in the maritime arena.
Michael Hart is freelance writer and researcher focusing on civil conflict and the politics of East Asia. He has written for online publications including World Politics Review, The Diplomat, Geopolitical Monitor, Asian Correspondent and Eurasia Review. © 2017, The Diplomat; distributed by Tribune Content Agency