Below are some lightly edited remarks provided to the ever-busy Justin McCurry, writing for the Christian Science Monitor on recent suggestions that Japan may take up a great military role in the South China Sea, here.
The prospect of greater SDF involvement in the SCS has been on the radar for a number of years, but I see the timing of bringing this up as being connected to progress on the US-Japan Revised Guidelines. Greater integration of regional operational activities between the US and Japan will be the likely outcome of the negotiations over the revised guidelines that will be finalized sometime this year.
Japan responding favourably to Admiral Thomas’ statement will demonstrate its commitment to increased “burden sharing” in East Asia through the US-Japan alliance; but I would still imagine this will not be a big focus of the negotiations and debate of security issues in the first half of this year. It is likely to be more of a long-term possibility. I don’t think it is posturing, and Prime Minister Abe and Minister of Defense Nakatani Gen would jump at the opportunity if they had the chance – but it is likely that there is an appreciation that the SDF taking on this role may not go ahead soon if debate over Japan’s security legislation gets particularly heated later this year.
In terms of regional reactions, clearly China will not react well – but I don’t think the PRC will change its behavior one way or another in response to this. I see no evidence that China would dial down its own activity in the region in regards to its territorial tensions with Philippines and Vietnam if the US or Japan were to pull back. In terms of the reaction of ASEAN nations, if Japanese patrols were initially very modest and within the operational framework of the alliance, I expect most ASEAN nations to be unconcerned, and Vietnam and the Philippines will welcome it. An independently acting Japan would be a different prospect, however, but that is not practically possible and is not really what the discussion is about at this point in time.
There are concerns, however, that the Abe administration is being unnecessarily provocative in even mentioning this.
On the face of it, it may indeed look unnecessary and inflammatory. And it is possible that US and Japanese leaders and officials may still judge it to be too inflammatory at a point in time when Japan is trying to improve relations with the PRC.
But if at some point “patrols” in the SCS do go ahead, the issue can be looked at from a wider view than just that of the Sino-Japanese relationship.
Certainly Japan does not have any direct territorial interests in the SCS, but Japan’s own national security will be greatly affected by any instability and conflict in the SCS, making it a legitimate stakeholder. Few countries anywhere are as dependent on regional maritime approaches as Japan is for both its resources and its income. For this reason, Japan has already been playing a security role in the region for some time, through its anti-piracy initiatives in region cooperating with littoral ASEAN nations. It has also been a critical part of the response to natural disasters in the region. It is likely that Japan would not be patrolling the region in an independent fashion at this point in time, and it will be cooperating with the US and perhaps the Australian navies, especially now that Australian warships have embedded with the 7th Fleet.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is whether Japan can in practical terms commit to more than just symbolic cooperation in the SCS. A larger commitment of resources could potentially lead to strategic vacuums opening up elsewhere closer to Japan itself, which is still the SDF’s primary responsibility. Without significantly greater investment in the defense budget, Japan’s power projection capabilities will remain modest. There is a great risk of overextending the MSDF in particular, which may not be strategically very wise. This has been an issue with conservatives like Koizumi and Abe – they have big strategic plans for the SDF and the alliance but they do not always appreciate the strategic and resource risks inherent in widening the range of roles and the geographic scope of operations that Japan’s defense officials do.
That said, the Japanese government is quite sensitive about the possibility of there being a future weakening of US commitment to the region in general, and even a symbolic commitment will allow Japan to start to position itself better in the regional strategic order should the US’ strategic rebalance stagnate in the future.