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01.02.2016 г.

New trends in Japan's strategy towards the South China Sea

Olga Dobrinskaya

The South China Sea is becoming a new arena for confrontation, as China is seeking to control about 80% of its waters and the US is struggling to protect the freedom of navigation while supporting the countries involved in aqua-territorial disputes with Beijing. The situation in the South China Sea may affect interests of other states; however they prefer to keep distance from the disputes. Vital sea lanes of communication go through the Malacca strait, with about 88% of Japan's imported oil being transported through the South China Sea. Until recently Tokyo's approach has been rather moderate and mostly centered on calls for peaceful resolution of disputes. However, there has been a certain change in its approach to the issues of the South China Sea, as Tokyo began to voice concern by China's actions, increased its multilateral and bilateral diplomatic efforts aimed at bringing more attention to the situation in the South China Sea, as well as cooperation with the countries which claim territories there.

Japan's strategy is being shaped by a number of factors, first of all by its perception of China's assertive policy as a security challenge. It's most evident manifestation so far has been the conflict over the Senkaku islands which peaked in September 2010 and became a turning point in changing Tokyo's rhetoric on the South China Sea towards open concern with Beijing's actions while stepping up efforts to involve China in multilateral discussions on maritime security issues. Tokyo's main concern now is China's actions aimed at changing the status quo in the region, and Japan sees China's actions both in the East China Sea and the South China Sea as manifestations of such assertive policy.

Japan's support for the US policy of rebalancing to the Asia Pacific also plays a significant role in its changing strategy. Prime Minister Abe stated that the main pillars of his Asia policy include securing freedom of navigation and protecting open seas as "global commons" as well as the support for the US "rebalancing" policy. Japan is demonstrating solidarity with the US in the South China Sea, in return expecting Washington's commitment to protection of Japan's interests on the issue of the East China Sea.

Before the elections Abe marked his intention to deal with assertive China. He published an article called "The strategic security diamond" where he urged not to let the South China Sea turn into Lake of Beijing and to prevent its militarization[1]. His first overseas destination was Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. Within the first year in power he visited all ASEAN countries marking an energetic start to the diplomacy vis-à-vis South East Asia. Regular bilateral meetings led to establishing of the new strategic partnerships (Cambodia. Myanmar) as well as upgrading of the existing partnerships (Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia).

One pillar of Japan's South China Sea strategy is diplomacy within regional frameworks, such as ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM), Shangri La Dialogue. By placing the situation in the South China Sea on the agenda Tokyo aims at maintaining the high level of internalization of the disputes, not letting them end up as issues discussed bilaterally between China and a state concerned. Japan is also trying to bring the attention of the non-regional actors to Beijing' actions in the South China Sea. This is illustrated by its successful efforts to include the issues of South China Sea and East China Sea in the final document of the G7 summit in June 2015.

Japan is interested in discussing the South China Sea issue beyond the regional format and linking it to the East China Sea issue, underscoring similarities in China's behavior in both cases. Such an approach is set to demonstrate to Beijing the degree of Tokyo's diplomatic influence in global institutions. Also, while ASEAN countries may be sometimes reluctant to include the South China Sea issue in final documents, Japan has an opportunity to internationalize the issue by engaging European countries.

These efforts are accompanied by Japan's numerous initiatives in the field of maritime security. They include a proposal for a Maritime security forum put forward by the Japanese at the EAS meeting in November 2011, as well as a good seamanship initiative and a maritime transparency initiative which were proposed by the Japanese officials at the Shangri La Dialogue. By demonstrating enthusiastic approach towards maritime issues Japan proves itself to be an indispensable player in the region. This may also serve as an explanation for its growing preoccupation with the South China Sea issues.

Simultaneously Japan rigorously discusses the issue on a bilateral level, both within the ASEAN plus Japan framework and with each country individually. By combining multilateral and bilateral efforts Japan seeks to establish a unified stance for countering China's efforts at expanding its influence in Asia. Japan is interested in including into bilateral documents any references to China or at least to the freedom of navigation (implying anti-China context) while not all its counterparts share the same views. While freedom of navigation, maritime security or China is usually mentioned, the language of bilateral documents varies from country to country because the ASEAN members are not unanimous in their attitude towards China's activities. While the Philippines and Vietnam eagerly accept Japan's political support, Cambodia and Thailand are more interested in maintaining good relations with China. Japan's desire to enhance cooperation with ASEAN states is explained by their significance for political support and legitimizing Japan's efforts to contain China. If not only Vietnam and Philippines but all ASEAN states will express concern about China's maritime activity this will be diplomatic achievement strengthening Tokyo's strategic interests and its influence in the region.[2]

Japan's strategy towards Vietnam and the Philippines is manifested not only in strengthening the political cooperation but in increasing the official development aid, assisting their coast guard and laying the ground for military cooperation.

The ODA Charter revision in February 2015 made it possible for the first time to grant assistance to foreign troops although this assistance should be used only for nonmilitary purposes. ASEAN countries are expected to be major recipients under the new revised Charter. By using the ODA mechanism Japan was able to transfer coast guard equipment to Vietnam and the Philippines. Coast guard assistance is a means of building up their capacity to counter China and contribute to the containment strategy vis-à-vis this country.

The prospects for military cooperation are beginning to take shape. In January 2015 Japan and the Philippines signed a Memorandum on defense cooperation which envisages defense exchanges, capacity building, joint exercises, maritime security cooperation, and transfer of military technologies. In February 2016 the two sides signed an agreement on the transfer of military equipment. Negotiations are held over the agreement that would help Japan use military facilities in the Philippines. In May 2015 the first joint maritime security drills were held and in June 2015 the exercises on humanitarian assistance and humanitarian relief took place.

The recent agreement between Japan and Vietnam will allow the ships of the Self Defense Forces enter the Vietnamese port of Cam Rahn. The prospects for joint exercises are being discussed as well.[3] Japan has also concluded a memorandum on military cooperation with Indonesia and is holding talks with Malaysia and Indonesia on the transfer of military equipment. This strengthens Japan's security role in South East Asia while creating new defense markets and helping national military industry.

There is a possibility of Japan's further boosting its clout in the region by taking part in the US Freedom of navigation operations (FONOP). This issue has been raised by US officials and Prime Minister Abe reportedly told Barack Obama he was open to the idea of jointly patrolling the area[4]. However, there is a certain degree of cautiousness that prevents Tokyo from taking further steps as it may lead to deterioration of relations between Japan and China. The public is also unlikely to support SDF involvement in a controversial overseas operation right after it has reluctantly accepted the new peace and security legislation.

Japan' s strategy toward the South China Sea reflects Tokyo's desire to curb Beijing's leadership ambitions in East Asia by focusing on China' disputes with its neighbors and underscoring the link between Chinese assertive behavior in the South China Sea and in the East China Sea. Tokyo is relying on its own diplomatic efforts, as well as security cooperation with the Philippines and Vietnam and further strengthening of the US-Japan alliance. It is not clear yet how far Tokyo is willing to go in its efforts to counter Beijing in the region. Regardless of the rhetoric, Japan does not seem willing to make controversial moves that could seriously damage its relationship with China.


[1] Shinzo Abe. Strategic security diamond. - Project-syndicate.org

[2] Japan's Abe administration. Steering a course between pragmatism and extremism. John Nilsson-Wright and Kiichi Fujiwara. September 2015. Chatham House.P.10.

[3] Amid South China Sea tensions, Japan strengthens ties with Philippines, Vietnam. Mina Pollman. 2.12.2015 - the diplomat.com

[4] China is on ‘high alert' for Japan's "intervention" in South China Sea. 21.11.2015 - The diplomat.com

 
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