Significantly, Japan is looking to help build the capacity of regional coastal states through the strategic use of its official development assistance (ODA). This policy imperative complements Japan’s existing policy toward ASEAN coastal states.
As maritime stability in the South China Sea is far from assured, ASEAN’s coastal states seem to be suffering from unstable strategic conditions. First, there is a rapidly growing capability gap between China’s maritime law enforcement agencies, PLA navy and air force, and ASEAN coastal states’ militaries. And China is bound to continue consolidating its maritime and air superiority vis-à-vis its Southeast Asian neighbours.
Second, ongoing efforts to generate a rules-based maritime order in the South China Sea have not gained visible success. The negotiations over establishing a legally binding code of conduct for the South China Sea are likely to be long and daunting, since China has not shown an accommodative stance when it comes to discussing maritime disputes in a multilateral setting.
Third, more ASEAN countries have been considering inviting third parties, most importantly the US — but also Australia and Japan — to be involved in the balance-of-power games in the South China Sea. But defining the US’s role as an external balancer against China is still too tricky an agenda for most ASEAN countries, as the US and Chinese economies are deeply interdependent.
ASEAN needs to increase its own ability to deal with a rapidly changing strategic landscape, which will require equally rapid capacity building on its part. Japan desires to maintain a favourable balance of power in the South China Sea because it is a vital sea lane for Japanese trade (especially energy imports). Also, any potential agreements between China and ASEAN over the South China Sea could serve as a model for Japan and China in dealing with maritime interests in the East China Sea. So, helping to build ASEAN’s maritime security capacity is becoming a key policy consideration for the Japanese government. Japan is now seeking a regional security-oriented approach to its engagement with ASEAN.
First, Japan is more actively engaging in joint military exercises and training in Southeast Asia. Japan has increased its profile in past years by participating in joint exercises, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and non-combatant evacuation operations. For example, Japan conducted its first joint maritime military exercise with the US and Australia in the South China Sea in July 2011. Japan is significantly increasing its networks, communication and security cooperation with regional states by increasing its participation in these types of multilateral joint military exercises and training.
Second, Japan is supporting ASEAN’s security capacity building by boosting its ODA. During the Japan–ASEAN Summit Meeting in November 2011, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda pledged US$25 billion to promote flagship projects for enhancing ASEAN connectivity. And at the Japan–Mekong Summit in April 2012, Japan pledged US$7.4 billion in aid over three years to help five Mekong states’ infrastructure projects. Japan’s foreign minister, Koichiro Genba, is now vocally promoting the ‘strategic use of ODA’ to develop a nexus between Japan’s aid and regional security. If Japan’s financial assistance is more strategically oriented to support these functions, it can serve as a major tool for ASEAN’s defence capacity building.
This could also support an effective US military presence in the region, as building the capacity of US allies and friends in Asia is a major component of the US’s military rebalancing strategy.
ASEAN’s defence capacity could also serve as potential alternative access points for US forces in pursuing a ‘geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable’ presence in the Asia Pacific region.
Finally, Japan is seeking to promote direct arms exports to support the defence infrastructure of ASEAN countries. In December 2011, Japan lifted its self-imposed ban on arms exports to allow overseas transfers of defence equipment for maintaining peace and international cooperation. Japan is considering using its ODA to provide the Philippines with patrol vessels for its coastguard and maritime communication system. Japan is also gearing up to consider exporting its patrol vessels, crafts and multi-purpose support ships for developing ASEAN’s maritime security capacities. Japan will further contribute to ASEAN’s maritime security if this hardware assistance is coupled with technical support and training from Japan’s coastguard and Self-Defense Forces.
Although these factors indicate Japan’s new policy direction toward its engagement with ASEAN, Japan may need a more clear strategy to promote ASEAN’s capacity building. Helping to build ASEAN’s defence capacity while avoiding security dilemmas with China will be difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, joint military exercises and training, the strategic use of ODA and arms exports will constitute important pillars for Japan’s policy toward ASEAN.
Ken Jimbo is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Policy Management, Keio University.
An earlier version of this article was published by the Association of Japanese Institutes of Strategic Studies.