Written by Reinhard Drifte.

Last month, it was reported that Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force`s (MSDF) largest warship, the Izumo helicopter carrier (19,500 t), together with the destroyer Sazanami, conducted  three days of joint drills with the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the South China Sea and visited Singapore. This was the first time and raised international attention against the background of rising tensions and US calls to its Asian allies for more burden sharing to maintain stability in the South China Sea.

Japan’s interests in the South China Sea

There are several interests which are motivating the current Japanese government to get involved in the South China Sea: protecting its commercial and military shipping interests through one its main sea lanes, stiffening the backbone of its Asian political and economic partners in the face of a rising China, keeping its only security ally – the US – involved in Asian regional security (and notably as a quid pro quo in the East China Sea with its territorial problem regarding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands), and sending a general signal to China about the need for the peaceful resolution of international disputes and for the upholding of international law. Under Prime Minister Abe, the Japanese government has in recent years equipped itself with various security-relevant laws (e.g. the 2015 Legislation for Peace and Security) and guidelines which are supposed to make his country a policy of “Proactive Contributor to Peace”.

One of the interests which is less heard of is Japan`s involvement some of the oil and gas exploitation ventures in the SCS, of which some are likely to be within the Nine-dash line. Despite clashing with China`s territorial claims, the other littoral countries have allowed domestic and foreign oil and gas companies in areas which they claim to be their Exclusive Economic Zones and Continental Shelves. As this author has pointed out elsewhere, Japanese companies are active in some contested areas off the coasts of Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. The involvement by Japanese companies is of a relatively modest scale, focusing on exploration and operating as part of joint ventures with bigger companies. With China`s growing military posture in the SCS, its improved technology, its increasing energy and the increasing dependence of the littoral countries on China, however, Beijing may one day decide to move more resolutely against some of the littoral countries and their foreign economic partners encroaching on what it considers to be its resources.

Japan’s bilateral and multilateral policies

Tokyo has developed an array of bilateral economic, political and military policies to protect its interests in the SCS. It has traditionally supported the littoral states of the SCS as part of its policy to strengthen the political and economic resilience and cooperation of ASEAN. Apart from trade and investment which has contributed to a considerable extent to the integration of ASEAN, ODA has been a major tool, with Vietnam and Indonesia being now the main recipient. With Japan`s growing focus on security, ODA can now also be used to strengthen the rule of law, maritime security, cybersecurity and peace-building measures. Having already supported the safety of the Malacca Strait and anti-piracy operations by the littoral countries in the past, Tokyo has now moved to support the coast guards of the littoral countries with training and the provision of patrol boats to Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. This has now also expanded to joint exercises with the naval forces of some of the littoral countries. It is interesting to note that the Philippines continues to be a major target of Japan`s economic and security-related support even after Rodrigo Duterte became the new president. With his anti-American stance, his pro-China inclinations and his brutal anti-drogue policy, cooperation with the US became rather difficult but Japan seems to stand in for Washington.

The increased Japanese involvement in the security of the SCS has been very much promoted by the US through various new bilateral defence policy agreements, starting already under President Obama. Starting in 2015, various US military leaders have encouraged Japan to take part in joint air and/or sea patrols of the SCS. So far, the Japanese government has resisted such calls which may become even stronger under the Trump Administration. Japan tries to show support for a greater military presence in the SCs by making use of the regular transit of its MSDF ships and patrol aircraft (P3C) between the anti-piracy operations on the east coast of Africa and Japan with stopovers in ports of Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia. The visit of the Izumo has also to be seen in this context of Japan trying to be an “Assistant Balancer” for the US.


Japan is likely to continue its incremental expansion of security-related involvement in the SCS against the background of China`s salami tactics and US demands for burden-sharing. However, there are political difficulties and costs in implementing Japan`s comprehensive policies towards the SCS, apart from enhanced security involvement being hindered by Japan`s still powerful pacifism, constitutional restraints and budgetary limitations.

First of all, despite Japan`s encouragement to forge a common position of the territorial claimants concerning a binding set of behavioural regulations, such as through the planned binding Code of Conduct, the littoral countries have different positions on the territorial issues and how to proceed, notably in view of maintaining good relations with China. There are differences on maritime security priorities (smuggling, piracy, illegal fishing), apart from maritime borders or territories.

Secondly, coordination and cooperation with the US will not always be smooth. There are subtle differences between Japan and the US in emphasis of what region is more important and where/how to deploy limited resources: Japan`s focus is primarily on Northeast Asia and notably the ECS. Finally, there is China`s strong opposition to any country outside the SCS to oppose its advances in the region. China is using pressure in the ECS and notably the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands to keep Japan out of the SCS. The future obstruction of Japanese involvement in oil and gas ventures within China`s claimed Nine-dash line must also be considered. The effectiveness of Japan`s SCS policies in achieving Japan`s political, strategic and economic interests may be enhanced by a more balanced mix of political, economic and security policies, but this would also demand greater Chinese restraint.

Reinhard Drifte is the Emeritus Professor of Japanese Politics at the University of Newcastle. The ideas within this article were originally presented in the policy paper Japan’s Policy towards the South China Sea and can be found at length hereImage credit: CC by U.S. Pacific Fleet/Flickr.


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