After previous South China Sea interviews here and here, I also had a nice chat with Ken Moritsugu from AP regarding the South China Sea in the middle of month just before top SDF officials and the Japanese MOD started talking more about the “possibility” of Japan taking on a more prominent military role in the South China Sea.
Is Japan really getting involved?
Certainly the current Japanese government seems to be seriously considering this as a possibility, but my sense at this point in time is that it is about strategic signalling more than a commitment. The Japanese government has most notably upped the tempo of its military cooperation with the Philippines with the Philippines and Japanese militaries this year engaging in their first ever maritime joint training exercises in areas of the South China Sea. President Aquino’s latest visit saw the two countries discussing the possibility that Japan and the Philippines would consider an Visiting Forces Agreement where the MSDF could use Philippines’ facilities and maybe even have a rotating presence. The two countries have also agreed to upgrade their strategic partnership further and sign an agreement on the transfer of defense equipment. In addition, a Japanese defense minister made a symbolic visit Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam in 2013, and we have seen formerly more cautious Southeast Asian players like Malaysia and Indonesia looking to cooperate with Japan in explicitly defense-focused areas.
In what form?
I imagine at first it will simply be an increased presence in the region in terms of regularised joint training exercises and perhaps temporary use of bases. Increased intensity in cooperation associated with humanitarian assistance and disaster response will enhance operational familiarity and that in itself could be significant. In terms of traditional military exercises, Japan will likely concentrate in the near future on ways that it can enhance maritime situational awareness and surveillance of its SCS partners. In terms of joint patrols, Japan will likely get involved if other players, perhaps Australia, India or other ASEAN nations, also participate. I think there will be some reluctance within the broader foreign policy establishment in Japan if it was only Japan and the United States conducting joint patrols. A wider regional community response would give these operations greater legitimacy at home among the public.
How big a change in Japan’s postwar security policy would venturing into the SCS be?
I think it would depend on the type of response. If this was singularly a US-Japan-focused response involving Japan in physical maritime patrols or “freedom of navigation” operations using MSDF ships, then this would indeed represent a significant change in terms of Japan proactively projecting power into the South China Sea directly through the alliance mechanism. If it was framed in terms of a US-led Southeast Asian community response with various players involved, then in many ways it could be understood as a logical progression of Japan’s contributions to regional maritime security activities starting with anti-piracy activities in the 1990s.
A lot of this will depend on how long current tensions in the SCS persist, however. If, as some analysts have argued, China is upping the tempo this year ahead of the likely unfavourable Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in its dispute with the Philippines, but then intends to pulls back after that, then such Japanese involvement in SCS military operations may not come to fruition. If tensions continue or intensify in the coming years, then Japanese involvement may become inevitable.
There is a domestic factor to consider as well in that the Abe administration will likely need to go slow after passing any security legislation – even if they succeed they are likely to take a bit of a hit in terms of popularity. This may also be true in coming years if Abe and the LDP are serious about any constitutional change to Article 9.
Is this a good idea? Japan-China relations?
My sense is that at this point the Japanese government is engaging in strategic signalling and putting into place the necessary legal and military mechanisms as preparation ahead of making a final decision about whether to get more directly involved later down the track. There is the possibility that it might sour Japan-China relations which are currently improving, but it is also possible that Japan could use the “threat” of greater involvement in the South China Sea as leverage against China in tensions around the Senkaku Islands.
Related to this, and ultimately the key problem for the Japanese government, however, is that Japan does have very limited military resources to commit in terms of taking up a large role in the South China Sea at this point. The MSDF may be able to spare some capacity for air-based ISR activities, but beyond that I would be cautious about expecting too much unless we see an improvement in government finances and/or an increase in the military budget.