Author: Yoichiro Sato, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University
On 27 July, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered to provide the Philippines with 10 coast guard patrol ships through a yen loan as part of a naval agreement.
On one level, this decision represents an extension of Japan’s longstanding maritime assistance policy toward Southeast Asia in general and the Philippines in particular. But, at the same time, it sends clear diplomatic messages to Japan’s potential adversary China, Japan’s ally the United States, and Japan’s potential partner ASEAN.
Japan’s post-war interests in regional maritime security in Southeast Asia were mainly about trade: it wanted to ensure its ships had safe passage throughout the region. Now, growing economic integration with Southeast Asia combined with Japan’s reliance on energy imports from the Indian Ocean and beyond means Southeast Asia has become an important part of Japan’s security considerations. While Japanese assistance to the region through the 1980s and most of the 1990s focused on navigation safety, the sharp increase in piracy incidents in the Malacca Strait in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis broadened Japan’s interests into maritime counter-piracy measures.
The Philippines has been a particular focus of Japan’s maritime assistance. Sporadic piracy incidents have also occurred in the South China Sea, and the Philippines did not have the capacity to enforce maritime law across its vast maritime territory. In 1998, Japan helped the Philippines create a civilian Coast Guard and has provided training to its personnel ever since. Terrorism concerns in the Southern Mindanao and adjacent waters also placed the Philippines high on Japan’s aid priorities. Abe’s decision to provide new patrol boats is foremost an extension of this longstanding aid policy.
But these were not the only reasons for Japan to give aid.
The increasing bullishness of Chinese maritime forces in the East and South China Seas is another reason for Japan to give assistance to the Philippines. While Japan takes no side on the disputed sovereignty of the islands and atolls in the South China Sea, its interests in safe and unrestrained passage have prompted active Japanese involvement in regional security dialogues. Japan interpreted a naval standoff over the Scarborough Shoal between China and the Philippines in 2012 as a signal that China is increasingly willing to use force to assert its position in territorial disputes. While the addition of 10 patrol boats to the Philippines Coast Guard will not significantly shift the maritime power balance away from China, Japan’s aid is a clear message that it is watching China’s actions very carefully.
Japan’s alliance with the United States necessitates that the two countries assure free naval passage through the East and South China Seas against China’s presumed long-term objective to turn the waters into its own sanctuary. Given some Southeast Asian countries are wary of a US naval presence in the South China Sea, the United States and Japan watch China’s bilateral talks with Southeast Asian countries closely. They fear bilateral deals might infringe upon existing rights of free passage.
Despite the differing international legal contexts of the disputes in the East and South China Seas, Japan sees the two issues developing in parallel. The US commitment to regional security is crucial in both areas. That’s why, when it appeared the United States was distancing itself from the Scarborough dispute, Japan tried to steer the United States away from a neutrality policy between its Asian allies and China. In the eyes of the current conservative Japanese political leaders, President Obama’s commitment to ‘rebalancing’ must be backed up by tangible force deployments. In this sense, Abe’s aid decision was also an attempt to spur greater US commitment to regional security.
Finally, Japanese aid to the Philippines is a signal to ASEAN that it backs ASEAN solidarity on the South China Sea. China’s effort to divide and conquer individual Southeast Asian countries succeeded in 2012, when that year’s chair, Cambodia, prevented a joint communique from being issued after rejecting references to the South China Sea. Continental Southeast Asian countries with no claims to maritime territory are most vulnerable to China’s diplomatic courting because their small economies depend heavily on China. It is crucial for both ASEAN and Japan to prove their diplomatic relevance in the face of an increasingly bullish China. Japan’s effort may not be able to create a solid containment network against China as such, but it should support a united ASEAN free of Chinese interference. Japan’s aid to the Philippines demonstrates its willingness to help ASEAN remain unified.
Given these factors, Abe’s decision to boost aid to the Philippines has three implicit aims: to deter China; awaken the United States; and assure ASEAN, which should be feeling a boost in confidence thanks to Japan’s willingness to play an active security diplomacy role in the region.
Yoichiro Sato is Professor of International Strategic Studies at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University and Hennebach Visiting Scholar at Colorado School of Mines.