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.