PDF version [608KB]
Dr H. D. P. Envall*
Australian National University
Japan is not a direct party to any of the
disputes in the South China Sea. It does not have territorial claims in the
area. Nor does it have any claim to an exclusive economic zone. Nonetheless,
Japan does have vital interests in the area. As Yoichiro Sato, a Japanese
defence expert at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, aptly explains, Japan is
‘an important stakeholder’ in the South China Sea. This paper examines Japan’s perspective on the South China Sea
across three dimensions. Firstly, it asks why the South China Sea is important
to Japanese national interests. It then lays out Japan’s strategic objectives
in the area. Finally, it considers the risks and uncertainties Japan faces in
pursuing these objectives. While Japan is a significant stakeholder, the South
China Sea disputes highlight Japan’s limitations, including self-imposed policy
constraints and capability gaps, as well as the geopolitical and geoeconomic
vulnerabilities it faces in the Indo-Pacific more widely.
Why is the South China Sea Important to Japan?
Japan’s ‘economic activity and the
survival of its people’, as then Rear Admiral Takei Tomohisa noted in 2008, ‘depend
on unimpeded economic activity via sea-lanes of communication.’ Indeed, Japan’s
first interest in the South China Seas is to ensure that international trade
passes smoothly through the region. Approximately 80% of Japan’s energy imports
travel through the South China Sea and much of its trade as well. In 2019,
Japan’s trade with just the European Union (including the UK) and the members
of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) amounted to over US$363
billion or around 25% of Japan’s total trade.
Japan also has strategic interests in the
South China Sea. Japanese governments worry about China’s growing assertiveness
in the East China Sea in relation to the two countries’ territorial dispute
over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. China’s
‘historical claims’ in both disputes; its rejection of the UN Convention for
the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in its territorial dispute with the Philippines;
its attempts to isolate and ‘pick off’ individual claimants in the South China
Sea; its militarisation of the South China Sea; and its deployment of ‘grey
zone’ operations, are all viewed from Japan’s perspective as part of a single
strategy by China intended to weaken the territorial claims and control of
other states in the area and establish its own control. Japan also faces similar grey zone tactics—attempts at coercion that
fall just below what is considered an ‘armed attack’—in the East China Sea.
China’s approach in the South China Sea,
according to the Japanese government, is about ‘moving forward with
militarization, as well as expanding and intensifying its activities in the
maritime and aerial domains, thereby continuing unilateral attempts to change the status quo by coercion to create a fait accompli.’ Japan has
been consistent in this position for some time. In 2012, former prime minister
Abe Shinzō argued that, ‘increasingly, the South China Sea seems set to
become a “Lake Beijing”.’ In
November 2021, current Prime Minister Kishida Fumio met with Vietnam’s Prime
Minister Pham Minh Chinh to issue a joint statement expressing ‘concerns’ about
the South China Sea and ‘unilateral attempts’ to shift the status quo and raise
tensions in the area.
Beijing’s aggressive conduct in the South
China Sea also increases Japan’s unease about China’s wider military and
economic rise. Three areas of concern stand out in particular from Tokyo’s
viewpoint. First, China’s military modernisation means that it now enjoys a substantial quantitative military advantage over Japan in the region, even as
Japan’s forces maintain a qualitative edge in some areas. In terms of Asian
defence spending in 2020, China spent US$193 billion, which amounted to 42% of
the region’s total. By comparison, Japan spent US$49.7 billion or around 11% of
the total (and 26% of China’s spending). With doubts now raised over America’s military superiority in the
western Pacific, Japan is also faced with the challenge of how to support
American power just as the possibility of a major power conflict, such as over
Taiwan, is growing.
Second, China is also contending with the
US and Japan for influence in the economic realm. China overtook Japan as the
world’s second largest economy in 2010 and has since extended its economic
influence across the region as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI),
often in competition with Japan. This geo-economic competition has been especially pronounced in
infrastructure investment. Through the BRI and the closely linked Asian
Infrastructure Investment Bank, China has sought to develop a range of projects
around Southeast Asia, including high-speed rail in Indonesia, transport
infrastructure in Thailand and Vietnam, industrial parks and special economic
zones in Malaysia and Cambodia.
Third, in rejecting UNCLOS and engaging
in a range of ‘grey zone’ activities in the South China Sea, especially the use
of maritime militias, China is disregarding international law and eroding
international norms, such as those around the peaceful resolution of
territorial disputes. Instead,
it is establishing a new great power politics for the region, as captured by
then Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi’s message to ASEAN in 2010 that ‘China
is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a
response has been to repeatedly express its support for a rules-based order,
especially on maritime matters, across multiple international forums. Some
Japanese analysts go further, arguing for a policy of responding to Chinese
unilateralism with actions designed to uphold international law, such as
Freedom of Navigation Operations or FONOPs. From Japan’s perspective, then, the capacity of the region to
contest China’s actions in the South China Sea—actions which are viewed by
Japan as ‘incompatible with the existing order of international law’—has become
something of a litmus test for whether such an order can be sustained
regionally and globally.
What are Japan’s strategic objectives?
Given these national interests, in terms
of strategic goals, Japan is unsurprisingly focused on maintaining the
established regional order, achieving a stable balance of power, and ensuring
Japan’s access to the region’s maritime commons. ‘Maritime realism’ or
‘regional realism’ are useful terms to describe this regional, maritime focus. In fact,
Japan has long been clear in putting forward ‘the maintenance and protection of
international order based on rules and universal values’ as key aims.
Gradually, these ideas have been
incorporated into a strategy for the region—what Japan now refers to as its
vision for a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP). As articulated by Abe, FOIP links together the Pacific and Indian
Oceans through ‘the confluence of the two seas’ (futatsu no umi no majiwari). In FOIP,
Japan is attempting both to define a new region and to shape its norms and
rules. For Japan, the fate of this new region would ‘not be determined by one
or even two powers,’ while the norms and rules of the region would broadly
follow those established under Pax-Americana. Such norm entrepreneurship is a central feature of FOIP, which
gives expression to these goals of maintaining international order, building
prosperity, and protecting regional peace and stability. The South China Sea is a core domain within FOIP’s ‘vast expanse of
sea,’ and Japan aims to maintain this sea as a ‘free body of water,’ that is,
‘a public good that brings peace and prosperity to all people without
discrimination into the future.’
Japan is also pursuing strategic goals
tied to the balance of power in the region. First, while not attempting to
block China’s rise, Japan is nevertheless seeking to guard against China coming
to dominate the region. Notably,
Tokyo avoids identifying Beijing as a strategic competitor. Indeed, it explains
that ‘no country is excluded from partnership’ in FOIP. Yet the logic of FOIP means that Japan, whilst cooperative if China
follows the rules-based order, can adopt a more critical posture if Beijing
shifts to great-power coercion. Such an approach gives Japan more flexibility when dealing with
Southeast Asian fears of being forced to choose between China on the one hand
and Japan, the US, and partners on the other.
To counter Chinese unilateralism in the
South China Sea, Japan has sought to build up the resiliency of claimants in
the dispute through a program of regional capacity-building. In part, the
program assists other nations in resisting Chinese grey-zone activities in the
South China Sea by helping develop their maritime law-enforcement capabilities. It also
goes beyond direct security cooperation, however. In response to China’s wider
geo-economic challenge, Japan is attempting a denial strategy aimed at
preventing China from establishing a clear sphere of influence in the area.
Japanese investment in the region is intended to develop economic
‘connectivity’ through ‘quality infrastructure investment.’ By offering
investment alternatives to China’s BRI, Japan is providing the region with
leverage to resist Chinese economic and strategic influence. In 2015,
Japan committed to invest US$110 billion in infrastructure projects in Asia and
followed this in 2016 with a further US$200 billion around the world, in
direction competition with the BRI.
Second, Tokyo is endeavoring to ensure
that the US remains engaged, as a security guarantor for Japan and as a key
underwriter of regional stability. As British academic Chris Hughes argues,
America remains the ‘only power capable of facing down China’s use of force’ in
the region and the only power able to protect the status quo in the South China
Buttressing US power has been a central goal of Japanese strategy since the
alliance underwent a period of some uncertainty in 2009–10. Japan is
‘all too aware’ of America’s ‘relative decline’ and the consequent need to
support the US. It has done so by developing a more proactive alliance role and
by adopting a larger regional diplomatic presence. The Abe administration reinterpreted Article 9 of the
Constitution—the famous ‘peace clause’—to allow itself the right to exercise
collective self-defence, that is, to come to the defence of an ally or partner
(albeit within restrictions). Supporting the US militarily in a potential South
China Sea conflict would likely be allowable now under Japanese law. When the
Obama administration adopted its ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ to Asia, Abe was
arguably more pro-‘pivot’ than the president. With FOIP, he then persuaded the
Trump administration to produce its own Indo-Pacific strategy.
Japan has sought to meet the challenge of
keeping the US in the region in three ways. First, at the bilateral level, it
has worked closely with the US to deepen overall alliance cooperation and
interoperability. It has
also engaged other US allies and partners, including Australia, as illustrated
by the recent signing of the Reciprocal Access Agreement by Kishida and
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Second, at the minilateral level, it has actively ‘networked’ US power by
adopting a more central position interlinking various US-influenced or US-led
strategic partnerships or groupings. The most notable of these has been the Quadrilateral Security
Dialogue, or ‘Quad,’ bringing together Japan, India, Australia, and the US. The
Quad’s first in-person leaders’ summit was held in September 2021, with
subsequent meetings held through 2022, including a second in-person leaders’
summit in Tokyo in May.
Finally, at the multilateral level, Japan has pursued what US-based academic
Saori Katada calls a ‘state-led liberal strategy.’ This geo-economic strategy entails an emphasis on growing
regionalism, the formalisation of high-quality rules and institutions to
structure economic interactions within this region, and an economic vision for
the region that promotes markets. Japan has led the way on establishing institutions such as the Comprehensive
and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership following America’s
withdrawal from the original Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive
Economic Partnership (RCEP). Japan’s aim, again, has been to support the US-led
international economic order in the region as a way of resisting Chinese
What are the risks and uncertainties for Japan?
Still, Japan’s overall strategic
situation is highly uncertain. Shifts
in the regional balance of power, according to the Japanese Government’s 2020
Defense White Paper, ‘are accelerating and becoming more complex … [while]
uncertainty over the existing order is increasing.’ Japan is threatened directly by North Korea with its missile and nuclear
as highlighted earlier, represents both an immediate security threat due to the
two countries dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and a broader
geopolitical and geo-economic challenge. Japan also faces ongoing domestic constraints on its security role,
such as legal limitations on how its military can operate, as well as
demographic and economic challenges. On the South China Sea, therefore, Japan’s challenge is to manage
this issue while also addressing these many other concerns.
Because only the US can maintain the
balance of power across Asia and in the South China Sea, Japan is inevitably
hostage to America’s intentions and conduct. Although the South China Sea has
become a major focus of America’s rivalry with China, it has now become one
amongst many. Yet the South China Sea represents a key testing ground for the
US if it is to maintain effective forward deployment into the western Pacific. The risk
and uncertainty for Japan in this regard stems from the fact that America has
not always followed a clear policy on the disputes in the South China Sea or in
challenging Chinese assertiveness. Under the Trump presidency, but also during
the Obama presidency, there have been ongoing doubts as to America’s commitment
to countering Chinese aggression, notably its militarisation of the Sea since
the late 2000s. This stands in contrast to America’s repeated commitments to
defend the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. When then Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide met with President Joe
Biden in April 2021, unsurprisingly the joint statement emphasized America’s
position on issues of key concern to Japan—its opposition to attempts to
unilaterally change in the status quo in the East China Sea and its objection
to ‘China’s unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea.’
Japan also faces uncertainty because it
cannot act unilaterally in the South China Sea but must cooperate with others.
Any cooperation is complicated, however, by regional actors’ diverging
interests. There are contrasting views within ASEAN on the South China Sea,
with some members, notably those engaged in territorial disputes, tending
toward a harder line on China. Others are more concerned to protect their
growing economic political relationships with China. Japan, therefore, faces an ever-present risk with its regional
diplomacy that it might alienate as many countries as it befriends. It has
found that aligning its own FOIP vision with ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific Outlook has
required some finessing. The Japanese government initially dropped reference to
FOIP as a ‘strategy’ in response to ASEAN concerns and, more recently, has
started referring to a ‘peaceful and prosperous,’ rather than ‘free and open,’
Indo-Pacific for similar reasons.
The last risk for Japan is that it must
balance China’s influence without unduly antagonising Beijing. Japan’s economy
may depend on free shipping lanes through the Indo-Pacific, but Japanese
prosperity also remains heavily dependent on the Chinese economy. In 2019,
21.3% of Japanese trade was with China. Yet Japan has been seeking to diversify its economic relationships.
Tokyo has sought to reduce the country’s geo-economic vulnerability by
encouraging Japanese firms to move supply chains away from China.
Accordingly, Japan’s foreign direct investment (FDI) into China has reduced
substantially since 2012 as a proportion of its total outward FDI, declining
from a high of 11% in 2012 to 4.7% in 2019. In seeking to mitigate the risks of its China relationship, Japan
can be said to rely on hedging with ‘elements of economic pragmatism,
binding-engagement, dominance-denial and indirect balancing.’ Tokyo is
pragmatic when it comes to recognising the importance of the economic
relationship but seeks to balance this with economic diversification policies,
rules promotion, and institutional innovation.
Japan is not a direct participant in any
South China Sea disputes. Yet, as this paper shows, the South China Sea is of
major strategic significance to Japan, not only in military terms but also with
respect to the country’s diplomacy and economic security. So, whilst not an immediate
player in the dispute, Tokyo is more than a disinterested observer. The idea of
Japan as a South China Sea ‘stakeholder,’ therefore, does well in capturing the
multidimensional nature of Japan’s interests in the area. It also suggests that
Tokyo has long dispensed with the kind of mercantilist, low-key approach that
characterised much of its diplomacy during the Cold War. Instead, Japan now aspires to a much more active regional role, one
that is outside the shadow of America and intended to more clearly to shape the
region and events in the South China Sea. This is the basic aim of Japan’s
vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
At the same time, the South China Sea
issue also highlights Japan’s strategic vulnerabilities and the precariousness
of its position as a major regional player—its problematic relationship with
China, complex ties to Southeast Asia, and heavy dependence on the US. In
particular, were the US forced at some point to concede the South China Sea to
China, this would seriously undermine Japan’s capacity to continue with a
balancing or hedging strategy toward Beijing, at least as currently envisaged.
Japan would then face the prospect of greater regional isolation and more
serious strategic choices: to fall back to an accommodation strategy regarding
China or to shift to a more hard-edged deterrence strategy based on a rapid
military build-up and potential nuclearisation. To avoid this, Japan’s main goal in the South China Sea, as with
the Indo-Pacific more widely, remains not so much ‘to keep China out’ but to
‘keep the United States in.’
Envall is a guest contributor to the Parliamentary Library. The views expressed
in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views
and opinions of the Parliamentary Library.
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