Japan's Interest in the South China Sea

Sep 29, 2011 | 21:18 GMT

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Japan has a long-standing and pragmatic interest in the South China Sea linked to its immediate geographic concerns: securing access to trade routes and to resources the archipelago lacks. It has been active in the South China Sea since industrialization prompted Japan to secure trade routes and seek resources. This ran parallel to Japan's militarization and expansion in its periphery. Japan began mining in the Spratley Islands as early as 1918 and occupied the Spratleys and the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea during World War II as part of its deployment in Asia-Pacific. After the war, Japan's policy toward Southeast Asia was to become an economic leader, 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. 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 not still 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 project itself as a rising power in Southeast Asia through expanding political and economic influence.