The Philippines and Vietnam have been raising a storm about China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, but they’re not the only ones voicing worry. Japan has been playing a relatively quiet, though significant role. It may not have a direct stake in the Paracel or Spratly Islands, but the world’s third-largest economy has every interest in ensuring tensions don’t swell. Increasingly Tokyo is acting on that interest.
At this week’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Regional Forum in Phnom Penh, Japan’s foreign minister intends to express serious concern at recent developments, press the parties to clarify their maritime claims and fast-track diplomatic solutions. While this intervention will be welcomed by Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, it will almost certainly exacerbate friction in Sino-Japanese relations.
It’s significant that Japan is willing to antagonise China over a territorial dispute in which Tokyo has no direct stake (notwithstanding its own, separate territorial frictions with Beijing). Tokyo has always kept an eye on the South China Sea, but it was not until tensions began to ramp up after 2008 that it felt the need to take a more proactive approach to the dispute. It’s now going to the next level by directly confronting China.
Japan has two major concerns here. For one thing, low-level tension could escalate over time into a larger conflict that disrupts maritime traffic. This is bad news for Tokyo’s economic security, since the South China Sea lanes carry Japanese goods to lucrative markets in Southeast Asia and Europe, and 90 percent of Japan’s crude oil imports pass over those waters.
The other problem is that if Beijing intimidates its way into dominance of the South China Sea, it could replicate that tactic in the East China Sea – where Japan and China directly bicker over territory. If China coaxes or coerces its Southeast Asian neighbours into accepting the questionable justifications for its claims to sovereignty and “historic rights” in the sea, existing legal norms such as the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea will be undermined. This could dilute Japan’s claim to ownership of the Senkaku Islands (which China calls the Diaoyus) in the East China Sea, if Beijing decides to use similar arguments.
Moreover, Beijing might calculate that just as its belligerence worked in one region, it could work in another. Chinese brinkmanship could provoke a major military and diplomatic crisis in Sino-Japanese relations.
This explains Japan’s determination to play a leading role in managing the South China Sea crisis, and using multilateral forums is one way for it to do so. Tokyo has used summits with Asean to call for “peace and stability” in the seas. More importantly, it has pledged to strengthen cooperation between the Japan Coast Guard and its counterparts in Southeast Asia. This is important because in general disputants have used their coast guards, rather than naval warships to press their claims in the South China Sea.
Japan also suggested recently that membership of the annual Asean Maritime Forum be expanded to include some of Asean’s dialogue partners – such as Australia, India and the United States. Japan views this forum as a useful venue to strengthen existing international-law frameworks and develop dispute resolution mechanisms for settling South China Sea claims. This would also boost the presence of liberal democracies at the table. The trouble here is Asean, some of whose members have reacted cautiously in the fear of antagonising China.
This isn’t to say Japan is entirely satisfied working only through Asean. Tokyo is increasingly frustrated at Asean’s inability to manage the crisis, although it continues to voice strong support for the organisation’s efforts. Japan wants to ensure that Asean stands united and opposes individual members cutting deals with China – since it knows Beijing will have the upper hand in that scenario.
So Tokyo also will pursue a bilateral course with some partners in the region. It has reached out most to the Philippines, which it fears is the weakest link in Asean thanks to its underdeveloped military. Tokyo is now bolstering the capabilities of the Philippine Coast Guard, and has agreed in principle to transfer up to 10 patrol boats to enhance its maritime surveillance capabilties.
The two sides have also begun boosting military ties. Regular dialogue has already started, and this year Japanese naval vessels visited the Philippines to take part in training exchanges and humanitarian missions. Besides the Philippines, Japan has agreed to upgrade defense relations with Vietnam and taken part in discussions with Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
China can oppose other major powers from “meddling” in the South China Sea dispute all it wants, but its own actions have forced Japan to “meddle.” Tokyo seems resolute on helping South East Asian countries find a favourable resolution, even if that means some sparks fly as a result of this week’s Phnom Penh summit.