Abe’s quest for collective self-defence: will Asia’s sea lanes bind or divide?

Author: Sourabh Gupta, Samuels International

It has been a long-standing lament of national security conservatives in Tokyo that Japan failed to take advantage when the opportunity presented itself in the mid-1980s to extend the range of its maritime patrols across the full length of the ‘oil line’ from the Persian Gulf through the Straits of Malacca to Northeast Asia. The United States would have favoured it; the Southeast Asians, witnessing the Maritime Self Defense Force’s (MSDF’s) restraint and discipline, would have embraced it; and even China would have tolerated it given the Soviet Navy’s unwelcome presence at Cam Ranh Bay.

The strategic value of securing the oil transportation routes was quite ancillary. It was instead the spatially elastic, definitional use of sea lanes to redraw the geographic boundaries of Japan’s self-defence zones, and thereby transcend the proscriptions of the nation’s ‘peace’ constitution, which held the primary appeal.

That opportunity is yet again at hand. On 15 May, Prime Minister Abe’s hand-picked panel of conservative security experts re-issued its updated advisory report calling on the Japanese government to reinterpret Article 9 of the constitution to allow for the exercise of the right to collective self-defence. Among its key recommendations are ones which call for the exercise of this right in aid of countries with close ties that are located along the sea lines of communication (SLOC) extending out to the Persian Gulf — even during a situation when Japan is not under direct attack.

Given Prime Minster Abe’s ideological attachment to this revisionist cause and his commanding majorities in the Diet, the recommendation might yet see the light of day. Unbeknownst to much of the political establishment and electorate, it may also potentially tie the hands of a future Japanese government to lend rear-area support that is joined in the use of force with the American military in the case of an armed contingency against Chinese military might in the South China Sea. Though the likelihood of such a confrontation appears slim today, the progressively networked character of America’s alliances in Asia means that this will not always remain so.

Self-Defense Force (SDF) patrols of the SLOC in the areas surrounding Japan have long been unexceptionable. Ever since Prime Minister Suzuki’s 1981 announcement that Tokyo would endeavour to defend its sea lanes to a distance of 1000 nautical miles and the subsequent Nakasone 1985 Mid-Term Defense Program identified protecting the SLOC in the waters surrounding Japan as one of three defining defence functions to be strengthened, the MSDF has had the primary responsibility of conducting anti-submarine warfare and de-mining operations on the high seas from Tokyo–Guam and Osaka–Taiwan. Interdicting hostile shipping in the Tsushima, Tsugaru and Soya Straits in cooperative action with US forces has also been within the MSDF’s remit.

By contrast, the exercise of this patrol and interdiction function, including the authorisation to launch counter-attacks in combat zones on state enemies of the Japanese government’s designated allies in an ‘out-of-area’ contingency — even when the home islands are not under attack — would constitute a breathtaking expansion of the scale and scope of the SDF’s responsibilities.

To soften public opinion, Abe’s panel of security experts have painted an anodyne scenario of MSDF minesweepers acceding to an American request to ensure safe passage through the Straits of Hormuz during an outbreak of hostilities, presumably with Iran — a mission the MSDF has hitherto been constitutionally barred from performing until belligerents have struck a truce. Nothing within the proposed legal framework would, however, prevent Self-Defense Forces from having to respond with an exchange of fire with a Chinese warship in the South China Sea, after having been called upon by a US warship to provide logistics and rear-area collective self-defence support in that designated combat zone.

Admittedly, collective self-defence is a right, not an obligation, and Tokyo can take a policy decision not to exercise this right. To fail to do so however, at a moment when US forces are under attack and Japan possesses the legal scope to intervene and assist, risks damaging the bilateral alliance in a similar way that American non-support in a Senkakus-related contingency would.

The scenario sketched is not far-fetched. Last July, the American and Australian militaries engaged in a simulated war game that sought to expel a dictatorship (China) that had set up puppet regimes (captured land features in the South China Sea) under the guise of restoring freedom of navigation (SLOC safe passage) to these waters. Transport units from Japan were deployed in the exercise. Also earlier last year, an Australian warship was embedded with the US Seventh Fleet for the first time and future exercises will in high likelihood involve the progressive embedding of allied forces within US military units which aim to blockade hostile shipping. The Abe government’s own recent revised guidelines on defence equipment transfers, which prioritises weapons exports to countries facing sea lanes through which Japan imports crude oil, will tighten defence relationships and can only advance this potential day of reckoning.

Before Japan stumbles into a glide-path to confrontation with a formidable regional adversary in a geographic theatre that has hitherto lain beyond both the statutory scope of self-defence responsibilities (bar passage of exceptional and temporary special measures legislation by the Diet) as well as the ‘Far East’ limits of the US-Japan Security Treaty (defined as the area north of the Philippine islands), the Japanese public deserves an explanation for the compelling reasons behind this potentially perilous misalignment between implicit obligation and interest. A fresh interpretation of Article 9, by contrast, which admits the selective exercise of the right to collective self-defence in areas — and waters — surrounding Japan would enhance, not degrade, deterrence.

The sea lines of communication are what bind Japan to Asia and Asia to the Asia Pacific. US power in the oil market, coupled with its dominance of the sea lanes, locked Japan within the Western alliance system far more effectively than the 10 articles of the bilateral security treaty. As Japan’s domestic manufacturing sector became victim to its own prowess, the sea lanes furnished a trilateral geo-economic co-dependency featuring Japanese design inputs, Chinese and Southeast Asian production-shared manufacturing and American final goods consumption which the region’s military-first hawks have failed to dislodge.

Unless Beijing proclaims a sphere of self-sufficiency along the lines of the Imperial Japanese government’s ‘New Order in Asia’ and rises at the expense of Asia, the sea lanes will continue to afford China — and Asia — a cheaper and more politically rewarding pathway to regional primacy based on the logic of interdependence and mutual benefit.

Devising region-wide architecture that forsakes the language of choke-points, blockades and encirclement and instead entrenches the positive-sum gains from collaborative action — cooperative SLOC patrols foremost — would also be a tangible expression of the willingness of the region’s great and aspiring powers to share the benefits and burdens of stakeholdership as they steadily exchange rival positions at the helm of economic power.

Sourabh Gupta is a senior research associate at Samuels International Associates, Inc., Washington DC.