After his recent visits to Cambodia and Laos, Abe Shinzo has become the first Japanese prime minister to visit the ten ASEAN countries within the first year of his mandate. This achievement highlights two developments; Japan’s “return” to the region and a new appraisal of Southeast Asia in Japan’s strategic calculations. In a previous policy paper, published in January 2013,1 I showed that Japan’s security role in the region is experiencing a significant change. Beyond a mere catch-up strategy with China to regain influence in the region, Tokyo is developing a more proactive policy in response to growing geostrategic tensions. In particular, the multiplication of diplomatic struggles and clashes in the South China Sea are putting Japanese national interests at risk and leading Tokyo to build up its strategic role in the region. This attitude departs from Japan’s traditional reluctance to engage in Southeast Asia’s politico-military affairs due to historical sensitivities. Obviously, it is now willing to play a role in the “great game” of influence currently underway in Southeast Asia, in which Tokyo is soft-balancing China and is supporting a more sustainable US military presence.
The return to power of Abe and the LDP in December 2012 significantly accelerated the Japanese “pivot” towards Southeast Asia. He drew on his own personal convictions and commitment to developing these relations, as had his grandfather Kishi Nobusuke in the late 1950s.2 Abe also provided a strong rationale behind Japan’s strategic engagement singling out in January 2013 maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region as a matter of survival for Japan, and consequently setting as one of two national strategic objectives to “strengthen [its] ties with maritime Asia,” stating, “ASEAN is a supremely vital linchpin in terms of its importance to [Japan’s] diplomatic strategy.”3
Much is at stake in the South China Sea, from the preservation of vital sea lines of communication to the close monitoring of China’s advance in Asian waters. As the dispute with Beijing over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands reached new heights in September 2012, and again in November 2013 with the establishment of a Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), the perceived need to put a check on China’s excessive claims in the region is becoming more urgent. Japan is starting to implement a new smart power strategy, in which the traditional focus on multilateral cooperation and economic cooperation is complemented by more active defense diplomacy.
This article provides updated analysis about the changing pattern of Japan’s security role in Southeast Asia. Relations with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia are examined in detail, as the priority strategic partners identified by the Japanese foreign ministry.
The South China Sea: A Zone of Vital Importance for Japan
The South China Sea (SCS) is a crucial maritime space for Japan for three reasons. First and foremost, it is the host of critical routes of maritime transport for Asian economies. More than 80 percent of Japan’s oil supply and 70 percent of its trade passes through these waters. Any disruption of maritime traffic due to frictions between claimant states or undue control by a single dominant power would have a catastrophic impact on Japan. Second, the SCS is at the core of maritime connectivity between East Asian countries, linking the Pacific and Indian oceans. Enhancement of this is important for sustaining more even-handed industrial development and commercial dynamism in Southeast Asian countries. It also underpins deeper regional economic integration. Japan has been active in funding critical infrastructure in the region that would strengthen maritime connectivity. As its investments in and trade with Southeast Asia are set to grow further, the interconnectedness of Asian economies is instrumental in ensuring the success of Japan’s economic engagements. Finally, the SCS is essential strategically for at least two reasons. First, it is considered to be a place where the regional balance of power is at stake. As China is enforcing its claims and advancing its maritime presence in the SCS, Tokyo feels that the change in the current status quo would mean a similar threat to its direct interests in the East China Sea. Tokyo has considered the territorial disputes involving China in the East and South China seas interrelated since 1992, when Beijing passed its “Law on Territorial Waters and Contiguous Areas” asserting its sovereignty over the Spratlys, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and other disputed islands. Second, the area offers critical maritime routes to allow the passage of naval forces4, to hold military drills with their partners, and to closely monitor ongoing military activities in the area.
The mounting tensions in the SCS since 2009 have put all of these Japanese interests at risk. In this context, Tokyo’s prime objective is to support stability in the region by promoting a diplomatic and legal solution to the territorial conflict, against the “rule of might.” Another major goal is to protect freedom of navigation in the region. There are concerns that China would restrain innocent passage (as broadly defined) in large maritime zones, as its influence and presence are growing in the region.5 This would diminish the capacity of Japan and its allies to conduct military surveillance activities and check the advance of Chinese nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines based in Hainan. Furthermore, progress in China’s A2/AD capabilities would largely undermine US extended deterrence.6 Finally, Japan has a strong interest in helping Southeast Asian countries resist Chinese claims as it experiences a similar inflamed standoff with Beijing in the East China Sea. Thus, it is pursuing its objectives in the SCS (maintaining stability, preserving freedom of navigation, and preventing China’s undue expansion) through a multilayered strategy.
The new strategy Japan is implementing in Southeast Asia aims at supplementing its traditional tools of influence in the region (economic cooperation and support to multilateral coordination and integration) with new politico-military elements such as military cooperation and assistance. As such, it is attempting to use the full spectrum of its available tools, cautiously developing a smart power strategy to advance its interests in the region.
Strengthening multilateral security institutions despite their limitations
Japan has a good record in promoting regional security cooperation, especially regarding maritime safety and antipiracy activities. It played an essential role in the adoption of the ReCAAP agreement (Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia—signed in 2004), whose purpose is to facilitate information exchange on crimes at sea in the region.7 Japan also co-chaired the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Intercessional Meeting on Maritime Security (ISM-MS) and is a major promoter of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting + (ADMM+). Tokyo proposed in October 2011 to open the ASEAN Maritime Security Forum to ASEAN’s dialogue partners.
This commitment to these multilateral settings is a way for Japan to show its constant support for building an ASEAN-led regional community and also is meant to socialize China and engage with Chinese authorities to promote the respect of common, liberal norms. Yet, there is clear disillusionment in Tokyo about the failure to set up preventive diplomacy measures or to produce any strong binding security mechanism. Moreover, the agenda and proceedings of regional meetings depend in large part on the annual-rotating ASEAN chairmanship, fuelling fears of instability and inconstancy. Diplomatic clashes seen in recent ARF and East Asia Summit meetings exemplify the growing dissent between Asian countries in addressing sensitive issues. The inclusion of territorial issues in the South or East China Sea on the agenda or in the final declaration has been problematic and even resulted in an historic failure of ASEAN countries to adopt a joint communiqué at their 45th Annual Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in 2012. This shock highlighted the growing dissension within ASEAN, reinforcing Tokyo’s belief that promotion of regional maritime and security institutions has to be supplemented by construction of bilateral strategic partnerships.
Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have been identified as key partners for active security reengagement in Southeast Asia. Vietnam and the Philippines share Tokyo’s concerns regarding territorial disputes with China, and Indonesia is perceived as a high-potential country in the region (economically and demographically), willing to take leadership within ASEAN. The new, enhanced bilateral security cooperation promoted by Japan encompasses intensified defense diplomacy, larger security-oriented Official Development Assistance (ODA), and the launching of a brand-new military assistance program.
Military agreements and cooperation: An upgraded defense diplomacy
In the midst of mounting frictions in the South and East China seas, Japan has made efforts to ink a series of defense pacts with ASEAN countries. In the cases of Indonesia and the Philippines, these arrangements are built on the record of Japanese non-traditional security assistance, especially in the fields of antipiracy and counterterrorism. Tokyo strengthened security ties with Jakarta in 2006 with the signing of their strategic partnership, and then again in 2011, through regular ministerial-level strategic dialogues on political and security issues.8 The two countries advocate multilateral management of the SCS dispute, and Japan has supported the Indonesian efforts to hold regular track-two workshops on SCS issues since the 1990s. Indonesia and Japan are expected to expand their cooperation in promoting the rule of law to ensure peaceful resolution of territorial disputes and bolster regional capacity to respond to natural disasters. In January 2013, the Ground Self-Defense Force chief of staff held discussions with his Indonesian counterpart on this matter.
With the Philippines, the strategic partnership that includes high-level defense talks is more recent but is developing rapidly. A first Japan-Philippines Dialogue on Maritime and Oceanic Affairs was held in September 2011, when it was decided to implement more frequent coastguard exercises and to set up consultations between naval officers. In July 2012, the two countries agreed to step up high-level exchanges and training activities, including unit-to-unit military exchanges, visits between the two nations’ ships, and sharing of defense and security information.9 Abe visited Manila in July 2013 and emphasized the promotion of further maritime cooperation as one of his “four initiatives” in diplomacy with the Philippines.
The security relationship with Vietnam, with a more continentally-based economy, has not been developed within the framework of antipiracy cooperation. Thus, the collaboration remains modest even if significant progress has been made in recent years, especially as Vietnam is viewed as a more capable partner than the Philippines in terms of economic and strategic potential. In July 2010, a 2+2 dialogue (involving the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense) was launched at a senior level. In October 2011, the two signed a MOU for the promotion of defense exchanges. Since then, two Vietnam-Japan strategic dialogues were held in December 2012 and August 2013, and the first bilateral dialogue on security will take place in 2014. Last September, for the first time since 1976, a Japanese defense minister visited Cam Ranh Bay base, used for surveillance of the Spratly Islands, which demonstrated the solidarity of the two partners regarding the territorial dispute with China.
At the crossroads of economic and security cooperation: Expanding ODA for maritime capacity-building
If the general Japanese ODA budget has been declining for years, Southeast Asian countries are still among the top recipients, with Indonesia ranking first, Vietnam third, and the Philippines fifth in 2009-2010. The impetus given to “strategic use” of ODA is a sign that the economic assistance granted to the ASEAN countries, especially regarding the building of maritime capabilities, will grow in the coming years. Despite strong aversion from officials in charge of ODA for hard security matters, public aid has been gradually used to fund responses to “non-traditional” security issues such as antiterrorism and antipiracy. Disguised as law enforcement issues, these “gray security activities” became eligible for Japanese aid. It allows Japan to contribute to regional stability while enhancing its security assistance in a non-controversial way. For example, the Japanese Coast Guard (JCG), the oldest and most sophisticated force of its kind in the region, have been at the forefront of antipiracy cooperation with Southeast Asian countries with activities funded through ODA. Tokyo typically encourages its partners to separate their maritime police force from their armed forces and to set up coast guard forces, in order to facilitate the export of patrol boats and other equipment through ODA. In 2006, in the context of antipiracy cooperation, Japan thus provided three Japanese Coast Guard cutters to Jakarta through ODA.
The new flagship project of maritime security-oriented ODA is the provision of 10 patrol boats (worth US$12 million each) to the Philippine Coast Guard. While the proposal was first made in March 2012, before the April spat over the Scarborough Shoal, Japan’s move has been interpreted as support against Chinese muscle-flexing in the SCS. Commentators say that similar boats could also be offered to Vietnam.10 The deal was confirmed by the Abe administration in July 2013. As with the 2006 case, this project raises the question of the legality for Japan to sell such equipment, which may be considered weapons under the heading of ODA. In December 2011, the arms export ban was actually relaxed, allowing Japan to sell military equipment for peaceful and humanitarian purposes, even if conditions are attached restraining the use of the ships to antipiracy operations and safety of navigation, and not for challenging other states on territorial issues. In any case, Japan’s gesture is meant to send a political signal.
Maritime-security oriented ODA has become an important tool in the Japanese soft-balancing strategy toward China. In particular, it helps Tokyo to build a network of like-minded security partners in the region. The 2010 Defense Guidelines already stated the necessity of creating a security network “by combining bilateral and multilateral security cooperation in a multi-layered manner”, with US allies in the region, as well as “the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, which are [its] traditional partners.”11 Of course, ASEAN countries do not possess the military capabilities of Australia, South Korea, or India. The objective is first to build their capacity to defend themselves, and second, to improve political coordination to form a kind of “maritime countries union” facing China. This “quasi-coalition” is meant to make up for the relative US decline and support its rebalancing to East Asia.
Security-oriented ODA is a new, important dimension of how the US-Japan alliance engages Southeast Asia. The Japan-US 2+2 Joint Statement of October 2013 thus emphasized the joint commitment to cooperate in security capacity building in the region. In particular, it “welcomed the strategic use of ODA by Japan, such as providing coastal patrol vessels and training for maritime safety to regional partners, and recognized the importance of such endeavors in promoting regional peace and stability.”12 Japan’s ODA efforts are clearly meant to complement US military engagement and create synergy.13 For example, Japan can provide funding to build or upgrade critical civilian infrastructure, which might also be used by rotational US forces and equipment. However, concrete coordination between the allies regarding security assistance seems to be difficult to achieve for now.14
ASEAN countries: Priority targets for Japan’s new military assistance
In 2012, Japan launched a brand-new program of military assistance, meant to improve the capabilities of developing countries to deal with security issues and more importantly to prevent security problems from occurring or worsening. This program should also contribute to strengthening strategic partnerships and raise Japan’s defense profile and influence on the international scene.15 Southeast Asian countries are clearly identified as priority targets. Troops in Cambodia and East Timor were trained by engineers from Japan’s Self Defense Forces in disaster relief operations and road building.16 In FY2013, the assistance is directed toward Indonesia and also Vietnam, where medical personnel were trained to care for the newly formed submarine crews17.
The Japanese government is adopting a cautious approach to military aid, reflecting the continuing controversy in the country regarding military contributions, as well as possible adverse reactions that it might fuel among its neighbors. The program was, thus, launched without fanfare, with a modest budget, and with a focus on providing human resource development and technical support in non-traditional security fields. However, there are strong expectations that the initiative will rapidly expand, as other countries, such as the Philippines, are eager to take part. Also, ASEAN countries are increasingly asking for the provision of military hardware as part of this assistance (for example, Indonesia is asking for radar systems and patrol ships). Already, the budget devoted to military aid is scheduled to double in 2013 and grow by 10 times on a short-term basis18.
Several challenges have to be addressed in order to develop a sustainable, efficient program. First, despite Tokyo’s prudence, the initiative has been widely interpreted as a move to counter Chinese clout in the region. In the Japanese Ministry of Defense, some officials are irritated by this interpretation, concerned that the “anti-China” discourse would contaminate the entire program, when, in fact, the military aid is much more than that, based on a complex web of interests and objectives. Another issue is the coordination (or lack thereof) between the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially as ODA is being more widely used for security purposes and overlaps with defense assistance objectives and projects. A coordination committee on security assistance has been set up and meets on a monthly basis, but this arrangement seems to be insufficient to provide a clear division of work.19 People in charge of ODA are still averse to military matters. To ensure effective, comprehensive capacity-building assistance to Southeast Asian countries, Japan must enhance the coordination of the security-oriented ODA and the military assistance program. 20 The new strategy to raise Japan’s security profile in Southeast Asia seems to be paying off. On the eve of the ASEAN-Japan Commemorative Summit to be held in mid-December to celebrate the 40th year of bilateral friendship and cooperation, there is a “welcome back” sign in the region.
A Successful Strategic Comeback in Southeast Asia
Japan as a “liberal” alternative partner
Abe put the defense of liberal norms at the core of the new diplomatic approach towards ASEAN. Thirty-six years after the Fukuda Doctrine that laid the foundation for friendly relationships between Japan and Southeast Asia in the postwar era, Abe in January 2013 listed five principles of a new “doctrine,” among which three relate to maintenance of political norms and civic rights, rule of law at sea, and free and open economies, implicitly targeting the Chinese authoritarian system and its repeated use of force at sea.21 Tokyo considers that the best way to preserve its strategic autonomy in the face of a rising China is to maintain the current US-led liberal order and increasingly challenged Southeast Asia.
Significantly, Abe could gather important support for this aim, including from countries considered to be leaning toward China. For instance, the Joint Statement between Japan and Cambodia, issued on November 16, came as a surprise to a number of Asian watchers. In the official text, the two leaders “underscored the importance of settling maritime disputes by peaceful means in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), in order to establish the principle of the rule of law in the Asia-Pacific region.”22 This diplomatic success exemplified the responsiveness of Southeast Asian countries towards Japan’s strategy of providing not only economic, but also politico-military cooperation and leadership.
It also shows that Southeast Asian countries are still trying to preserve their strategic autonomy by engaging the important regional players without tying their hand to one ally. They use their various partnerships in a utilitarian way to build their economy and capacity at a lesser cost. In this perspective, Japan is a welcome partner and has a card to play to enhance its influence, especially as it is increasingly considered as a credible security partner.
Japan as a credible security provider in the region
ASEAN countries’ expectations towards Japan as a security provider are now expanding. For a long time embittered collective memories of Japan’s aggressive past prevented it from developing its politico-military role in Southeast Asia. This is no longer the case. Most Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia, Vietnam, and even Cambodia and Laos, have expressed their understanding and support toward Abe’s ambitious defense agenda. The Philippines went further and publicly advocated a rearming of Japan and a revision of its pacifist constitution so that it can eventually act as a “significant balancing factor” to China23.
Japan is indeed building up its defense capability, through an increase in military spending: (+0.8% in 2013, for the first time in 11 years) and more investments dedicated to strengthen surveillance and monitoring activities in the East China Sea (new patrol aircraft, radars, and drones) as well as the development of amphibious capability to better protect the remote islands. The strategic governance of Japan is also expected to improve with the new National Security Council to better handle emergencies and decide on middle and long-term foreign and security strategies. Finally, the pet project of Abe is revising the interpretation of the Constitution in order to allow Japan to use its right of collective self-defense. One of the scenarios currently investigated by the governmental panel in charge of such reform is the possibility for Japan to defend ASEAN claimants in case of a Chinese attack24. In light of Chinese allegation that Japans’ militarism is back, it is particularly important for Japan to gain the understanding and support from other Asian countries.
Beyond its capability, Japan is demonstrating that it has the will to act, as it sent 1,180 Self-Defense Forces to take part in relief efforts in the wake of the deadly typhoon that hit the Philippines in November. Tokyo could concretely show the “proactive pacifism” promoted by Abe: the action of a benign, responsible power, whose armed forces contribute to international peace and stability.25 Besides, the swift Japanese reaction and its generous provision of a total US$52 million in emergency aid sharply contrasted with the small amount (less than US$2 million) offered reluctantly by China.26 This showed that China is losing ground; despite softer words and a “charm offensive” that began in October, Beijing failed to offer an adequate contribution, and was heavily criticized. Meanwhile, Japan could act in a very visible manner, and in cooperation with its US ally, which reinforced its credibility as a security provider.
The special relationship Tokyo maintains with Washington is today viewed quite positively in the context of a welcomed US pivot to the region. The Philippines, as well as Vietnam, has parallel expectations regarding greater US and Japanese involvement to train its maritime forces and provide equipment27. Also, last July, President Aquino suggested that the United States and Japan use the former US military bases in the Philippines to form a “credible alliance.”28 The alliance is helping to bring the Japanese military back to the region through invitations to join US maritime training such as the Cobra Gold exercises, held with Thailand since 1980, and the Balikatan drills with the Philippines.
In the midst of growing tensions with China, Japan is building its strategic depth in Southeast Asia. Stability in the SCS is a vital interest for a sea lane-dependent Japan. ASEAN countries are crucial partners in balancing against China. Tokyo is thus stepping up its security cooperation as part of a broader offensive to increase its soft power (through the signing of Economic Partnership agreements, and the conclusion of energy infrastructure, space, and high-tech transfer agreements). The evolution of Japan’s strategy in Southeast Asia encompasses a greater focus on politico-military matters with the use of new military assistance and the willingness to build a web of strategic partnerships in the region. This combination of economic assistance and military cooperation forms the beginning of a smart power strategy that looks appealing to ASEAN countries. However, despite improvement, Japan’s contribution to maritime capacity building in the region remains modest and quite cautious for now. It is expected to expand further as China’s new leadership maintains its very firm stance on territorial issues. China’s recent move to unilaterally establish an ADIZ in the East China Sea raises anxiety in ASEAN countries that expect a southern extension of the zone.
The objective for Japan is to move from low-key measures to the provision of hardware components. The Abe government envisions further relaxing of the ban on supplying arms with new National Defense Guidelines to be issued by the end of the year. This could lead to a more ambitious sale of military equipment to Southeast Asian countries, which are considered a big potential market. Vietnam has already expressed interest in the archipelago’s submarine fleet. Japanese commitment to Southeast Asian maritime capacity building and closer diplomatic and security cooperation is supported by a large majority in political and economic circles in Tokyo. However, the success of strategic engagement in the region will not only hinge on domestic resolution, but also on key external factors—China’s future attitude in the region and the US will and means to respond. While Japan is now further engaged in regional security, it is also further exposed. Tokyo will have to design a consistent and enduring diplomacy to defend its interests between the two great powers.
1. “Japan and South China Sea: Forging strategic partnerships in a divided region,” , no. 60, Ifri, January 2013, http://www.ifri.org/?page=contribution-detail&id=7555.
2. See “Behind the New Abe Diplomacy: An Interview with Cabinet Advisor Yachi Shotaro,” (Part One), Nippon.com, August 8, 2013.
3. “The Bounty of the Open Seas: Five New Principles for Japanese Diplomacy,” Address by H.E. Mr. Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, Jakarta, January18, 2013.
4. For example, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense vessels are regularly commuting through the South China Sea to take part in international antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
5. Beijing argues that “freedom of navigation” is indeed permitted beyond 12nm under UNCLOS, but that this provision applies only to “innocent passage” (of military vessels) and not to activities that are considered “hostile,” such as collection of intelligence information via oceanographic vessels or SIGINT collection vessels.
6. Tetsuo Kotani, “Why China Wants South China Sea”, The Diplomat, July 18, 2011.
7. Céline Pajon, “La coopération maritime nippo-indienne: réinvestir l’Asie par la mer,” Politique étrangère 74, no. 3 (Fall 2009): 641-642.
8. “Japan, Indonesia to boost ties through regular strategic talks,” Kyodo News, June 15, 2011.
9. “Statement of intent on defense cooperation and exchanges between the Department of National Defense of the Philippines and the Ministry of Defense of Japan,” July 2, 2012, http://www.mod.go.jp/j/press/youjin/2012/07/02_st_e.pdf.
10. Martin Fackler, “Japan is flexing its military muscle to counter a rising China,” The New York Times, November 26, 2012.
11. National Defense Program Guidelines for FY2011 and beyond, Approved by the Security Council and the Cabinet on December 17, 2010, 8-9, http://www.mod.go.jp/e/d_act/d_policy/pdf/guidelinesFY2011.pdf.
13. Press Conference by Minister for Foreign Affairs Koichiro Gemba, MOFA, Tokyo, April 27, 2012, http://www.mofa.go.jp/announce/fm_press/2012/4/0427_01.html.
14. Author interview with a senior official, MOD, Tokyo, July 2012.
15. Defense of Japan 2012, (Tokyo: Ministry of Defense, 2012), 275.
16. Japan Defense Focus, no. 37, Ministry of Defense, February 2013.
17. Defense of Japan 2013, (Tokyo: Ministry of Defense, 2013), 239- 240.
18. Yoshihiro Makino, “Defense Ministry quietly begins providing assistance to military forces overseas,” Asahi shimbun, August 27, 2012.
19. Author interviews with senior officials in the two ministries, Tokyo, July 2012.
20. Ken Jimbo, “Japan should build ASEAN’s security capacity,” AJISS Commentary, no. 150 (2012).
21. Shinzo Abe, “The bounty of the open seas: five new principles for Japanese diplomacy,” Address by H.E. Mr. Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, Jakarta, January 18, 2013.
23. David Pilling, Roel Landingin and Jonathan Soble, “Philippines backs rearming of Japan,” The Financial Times, December 9, 2012.
24. Linda Sieg, “Japan collective self-defense should include others, not just U.S.: adviser,” Reuters, November 6, 2013.
25. Jeffrey Ordaniel, “Japanese troops return to the Philippines,” East Asia Forum, November 27, 2013.
26. Osamu Tsukimori, “Japan readies 1,000 troops, naval ships for Philippines relief,” Reuters, November 14, 2013.
27. Sheldon Simon, “US-Southeast Asia Relations: Philippines – An exemplar of the US rebalance,” Comparative Connections, CSIS Pacific Forum, September 2013.
28. Michael Lim Ubac, “Aquino defends use of bases by US, Japan,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 3, 2013.