Sep 30, 2011 | 12:12 GMT

8 mins read

Japan Taking a New Role in the South China Sea?

A military cooperation agreement between Japan and the Philippines indicates the countries are going beyond their traditional economic ties and elevating security-related matters. The move comes as Japan's role in regional security appears to be expanding and as Tokyo, looking to rebuild its influence in Southeast Asia, may consider greater involvement in territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
During Philippine President Benigno Aquino III's visit to Japan from Sept. 25 to Sept. 27, the Philippines and Japan signed a military cooperation agreement to expand joint naval exercises and regular talks between maritime defense officials. The agreement moves the countries' relationship beyond their traditional economic ties and into the realm of security. Aquino had said prior to his visit that he would also seek backing from the Japanese government on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Though it has avoided direct involvement in South China Sea disputes, Japan's interest in the South China Sea is long-standing and pragmatic, linked to its immediate geographic concerns: securing access to trade routes and to resources the archipelago lacks. Earlier this year, tensions in the South China Sea heightened between China, the Philippines and Vietnam as Beijing increasingly asserted its territorial claims. Just as Japan sees China's rapidly expanding influence as a challenge to Tokyo's historically strong position in Southeast Asia, it also sees China's dominance in the South China Sea as a threat to its critical sea-lane and to its own strategic sphere. As other countries with claims in the South China Sea seek partnerships to boost their positions, and as the United States renews its engagement in the region, Tokyo could use maritime disputes in the South China Sea to reassert itself in Southeast Asia.

Japan's Interest in Southeast Asia

Japan has been active in the South China Sea since industrialization prompted the country to secure trade routes and seek resources. This ran parallel to Japan's militarization and expansion in its periphery. Japan began mining in the Spratly Islands as early as 1918 and occupied the Spratlys and the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea during World War II as part of its deployment in the Asia-Pacific. (click here to enlarge image) After the war, Japan's policy was to become an economic leader in Southeast Asia, largely through aid and investment, and to build trust among the region's nations with a limited military doctrine. From 1977 to 1992, Japan's development aid to Southeast Asian countries increased from $1.42 billion to $50 billion. During this period, Japan retained considerable influence over Southeast Asia and remained greatly involved in regional affairs. However, since the 1990s, Japan's influence in the region has declined considerably because of domestic economic and political constraints and increasing challenges from regional rivals, particularly China. This does not mean the South China Sea is no longer important to Japan. The import of crude oil and raw materials is critical to the energy- and resource-poor country (Japan's current dependence on foreign oil sources is nearly 100 percent, and approximately 88 percent of its supplies pass through the South China Sea). Furthermore, the Strait of Malacca is a crucial shipment point for Japanese goods going to foreign markets. Yet Japan's limitations, along with waning U.S. interest in the region, allowed China to use its expanding political and economic influence to project itself as a rising power in Southeast Asia.

Regional Concerns About China

Over the past five years, China’s blue-water strategy and military expansion have led to concerns among Southeast Asian nations about a Chinese military buildup and renewed tensions over the South China Sea. These developments have also attracted attention from Japan, which sees China's increasing assertiveness over the waters as a possible threat to Japan's supply lines. Japan has its own territorial disputes with China, over the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands) in the East China Sea, and has engaged in frequent rows with Beijing over joint exploration projects. For Japan, China's military buildup and sovereignty claims in the South China Sea not only suggest similar approaches could be used in Beijing's territorial disputes with Japan but also indicate that China wants to play a more dominant role in Southeast Asian affairs. Previously, Japan was reluctant to directly challenge China on the South China Sea, but recently Tokyo has become more vocal on regional issues, particularly regarding the South China Sea. Since tensions in the sea reached new heights earlier this year, Japan has several times voiced concern about China's dominance of the waters at Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gatherings and assisted claimant countries calling for greater attention to regional security issues. Japan also seems to have accelerated its efforts to increase Washington's security interests in the South China Sea, as demonstrated by Tokyo's attempt to formulate a framework for U.S.-Japanese cooperation along with ASEAN countries to pressure China to abide by international rules. Japan also put forth an initiative for cooperation with the United States and South Korea to defuse tensions in the South China Sea, and a proposal for U.S.-Indian-Japanese talks on regional security issues. Furthermore, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) deployed to the South China Sea earlier this year for a small joint military exercise with the U.S. and Australian navies off the coast of Brunei.

Japan's Possible Changing Role

Several changes have made it possible for Japan to use tensions in the South China Sea to take a stronger stance against China. First, thanks to renewed U.S. interest in Asia-Pacific affairs, Japan — the strongest U.S. ally in the region — has been under pressure from Washington to play a greater role in regional affairs in order to counterbalance China. Japan in the past decade has gradually shifted away from the U.S. security umbrella and begun taking more responsibility for its defense. This, along with China's growing economic clout and military modernization and expansion in the region, has caused both Washington and Tokyo to rethink their relations with Beijing. Japan's interest in protecting its sea-lane from an encroaching China has given Tokyo one more motive to take a greater role in regional security. Second, Japan can be expected to continue gradually expanding the role of the JMSDF to address energy supply line vulnerability and the general threat posed by China — both of which are growing in importance. The JMSDF is considered among the most sophisticated and capable naval forces in the world, but lingering memories of World War II and public perceptions of the Japanese military have strongly impeded its expansion. These perceptions show signs of gradually shifting, making it easier for Tokyo to argue for humanitarian and overseas deployments (as seen with the JMSDF's disaster response following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami). China's aggressiveness in the South China Sea, therefore, could help justify JMSDF operations. So far, the JMSDF's expanding role largely has been focused on disaster relief or peacekeeping missions, but anti-piracy missions off the Somali coast and an air force base in Djibouti demonstrate Tokyo's intention to increase the JMSDF's peaceful presence overseas. Bilateral JMSDF training with Southeast Asian countries could be the start of greater military involvement in the South China Sea in particular. Finally, Japan has also been pursuing both bilateral and multilateral security relationships with other countries in the region, with U.S participation. Tokyo has forged defense cooperation with countries including the Philippines and Vietnam — both of which have territorial claims in the South China Sea — and India, which has a strategic interest in containing China's expanding sphere of influence. Some defense-related bilateral summits and trilateral talks involving the United States have also been proposed. Southeast Asian countries with territorial claims in the South China Sea believe working with Japan could increase their leverage in negotiations with China, drawing international attention to the territorial disputes. Moreover, working with Japan is an immense opportunity for the Philippines. Despite Japan's apparent interest in the South China Sea as part of its strategy to regain influence in Southeast Asia amid China's increasing aggressiveness, Tokyo appears to be taking a cautious approach to avoid risking greater tensions with Beijing. It is not yet clear whether the new Japanese government wants to take an assertive stance against China on maritime issues. So far, the new Cabinet does not seem to be planning any bold moves in this area. Before taking a major step toward reinterpreting its role in Southeast Asia, Tokyo might have to garner the political will and intent to fit into the broader U.S. strategy for the region.

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