Japan’s Future in the South China Sea

in Program

By Jeremy Fuller

Japan’s Defense Minister Tomomi Inada recently announced a new plan for engagement with Southeast Asia. Christened “Vientiane Vision,” the initiative is Japan’s latest step in its mission to heighten its diplomatic profile in Southeast Asia. Over the past two decades, Japanese engagement with this region has moved out of the purely economic realm to address regional security, and Inada’s recent call for increased Japanese involvement in the South China Sea signals that this trend is only set to intensify.

With the unexpected outcome of the U.S. election casting into doubt the strength of the United States’ commitment to East Asia, both internal and external forces are driving Japan to wade further into the complex and volatile South China Sea. At stake is the security of the waterway through which the majority of Japan’s oil imports pass, as well as the principle of the rule of law in the settlement of territorial disputes, which affects Japan’s dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyu in China) in the East China Sea. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has tried to reshape the country into a more proactive and independent actor, and he will not want Japan to sit still while a new U.S. Asia policy coalesces.

Japan is already involved in capacity building for claimant nations in South China Sea disputes. In October, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed an agreement for Japan’s transfer of two coast guard vessels and T-90 military trainer aircraft to the Philippines. Though Duterte’s unexpected embrace of China and abrupt turn away from the United States has thrown the Philippines’ position in the South China Sea into question, he called Japan “closer than a brother” and showed a willingness to participate in joint military exercises. Japan also has plans to provide Vietnam with two large patrol ships, and it recently agreed to transfer two patrol ships to Malaysia. In addition to arms transfers, Japan has participated in educational exchanges with mainland Southeast Asian countries to increase their capabilities in disaster relief and humanitarian aid, and it has established contacts with Malaysia’s navy and Indonesia’s defense ministry.

Continued assistance with capacity-building in Southeast Asia can increase goodwill towards Japan and preface closer relations with ASEAN. Currently, the annual Japan-ASEAN Defense Vice-Ministerial Forum (created in 2009) is the most prominent example of regularized defense consultation between Japan and ASEAN. Defense ministers from Japan and ASEAN met in 2014, but this was a one-off event, and there is no formal structure in place for future meetings.

The Vientiane Vision will add a new level of official defense ties between Japan and ASEAN by taking a comprehensive approach to cooperation, which covers activities ranging from the removal of unexploded ordinance to maritime exercises. Though the overarching goal of the enterprise is to build support for international law and promote defense collaboration, the Ministry of Defense has emphasized that ASEAN members can choose the objectives they want to pursue. It is a smart move, and it should give the countries of Southeast Asia a better sense of how cooperation with Japan can serve their interests.

The South China Sea is not an ideal venue for Japanese engagement: Japan is not a party to any of the sea’s disputes, and any action it takes will damage its relations with China and possibly even Taiwan. But if it does not act, Japan leaves the safeguarding of critical energy imports in the hands of a distracted and possibly disinterested United States, and it risks ASEAN drifting away from independent multilateralism into subservience to China — within which there is not likely to be much room for Japanese prosperity. By continuing to deepen its economic and defense cooperation with Southeast Asia and ASEAN, Japan can support a balanced, interconnected Asia.
Jeremy Fuller is a research intern with Stimson’s East Asia program. 

Photo credit: SurfaceWarriors via Flickr
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