When? Next week it would seem.

Hot on the heels of a promise to supply a number of JCG vessels to the Philippines, Japan is now also sending three JMSDF naval training ships to Manila for a four-day port call from 28 May to 31 May.

The ships are reported to be the JS Kashima (TV-3505), JS Shimayuki (TV-3513), and JS Matsuyuki (DD-130) of the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force and will be under the overall command of Rear Admiral Hidetoshi Fuchinoue. As is pointed out here:

The visit of the Japanese vessels comes just days after the port call of the United States nuclear-powered submarine USS North Carolina and two Indian warships INS Rana and INS Shakti in Subic, Zambales last week.

Although they also point out that:

Defense officials described all these recent visits of foreign warships as routine and is not connected to the ongoing stand-off in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal between the Philippines and China.

While these are training ships, they are not without some decent firepower and capabilities as detailed in the aforementioned link. It seems that the Philippines media has also picked up on the Yomiuri’s article referenced in yesterday’s post:

An editorial of the Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun said Japan could not just stand by and watch China’s ongoing military build-up in South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) while expressing fears of a direct confrontation between Beijing and the Philippines in the wake of the tense stand-off in Panatag Shoal.

“Japan cannot afford to ignore the Scarborough Shoal dispute, as the nation faces similar friction with China, which claims sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands,” the Yomiuri Shimbun said.

“Peace and stability in the South China Sea is not only crucial for nations in Southeast Asia. It also is in Japan’s national interest to ensure that its sealanes remain safe.”

Yomiuri Shimbun said the Japanese government plans to use official development assistance to provide the Philippines with patrol vessels for its coast guard will help the country strengthen its maritime security, and also be important in making China pause to think.

Comment: Situations like this (should) pose some interesting problems for the Japanese government that they should take a little more seriously. As Japan has constitutionally deprived itself of the ability to use its right to collective self-defense, one wonders if there is some risk in making such calls (notwithstanding the fact it was pre-planned). I don’t seriously think the conflict will escalate in this particular case for a number of reasons, but since military planners often deal in worst-case hypotheticals I will allow myself to do so as well.

One of the common arguments for Japan embracing some form of collective self-defense relates to the hypothetical situation where a missile was making its way to the US or US bases in the Pacific and Japan demurred on attempting to use its (co-developed but independently operated) BMD capabilities to intercept it. American scholars are more or less united in saying that such an action (or lack thereof) would almost instantly lead to the end of the US-Japan alliance. While “losing” the Philippines may not be quite as dramatic as a losing one’s key security guarantor, it is perhaps not unreasonable to think about similar implications in the event of an escalating conflict between the PRC and the Philippines – Manila and the Scarborough Shoal are really not that far away after all.  Of course the Philippines and Japan are not in an official alliance – Japan realistically cannot enter one with any other nation until or unless it does allow itself the exercise of the right to collective self-defense. Precisely because of this it is not unreasonable to ask exactly what the MSDF is trying to do in the long-term by developing defense relations with foreign navies. The short-term symbolism is clear – the importance of these nations and Southeast Asia in general for Japan in terms of economic interests, global and regional diplomatic leverage, and human security still dominate traditional security concerns in the Japanese foreign policy community – as it should be for the time being. But once more substantive relations are in place, depending on the overall diplomatic environment at the time, the question may well be asked – and an answer should be prepared one way or another. If the answer is no, then perhaps more discretion is the appropriate disposition Japan should take to South China Sea related ‘diplomacy’ such as this.

Sending the Japanese Coast Guard overseas (as well as its equipment) as a form of soft power “security assistance” makes a lot of sense given the very real limitations many of these states have even in terms of transnational crime fighting, ie drugs, terrorism, piracy and trafficking in persons. This should probably continue. Over time it shouldn’t be too hard for these nations to put in place the required infrastructure to better protect their territorial waters from non-state actors. But Japan’s developing maritime and naval relations with India, Philippines, Vietnam, Australia, and perhaps even Indonesia, will at some point mature to the point where questions will be asked in regards to where Japan will stand in the event of inter-state conflict. It may be useful for Japanese politicians, rather than just Japan’s security analysts, to start considering this question sooner rather than later. In fact one feels that Japan’s security policy is already too far out ahead of what Japanese politicians and the public understand it to be (and pushing its constitutional limits also potentially). And a grand strategy needs domestic political and institutional buy-in to be truly successful. Japan during its ‘Yoshida doctrine’ years is a classic example of this.

India, the US, and Australia can take care of themselves. However no amount of training or goodwill will enable the Philippines or Vietnam to resist an assertive China. If there is any doubt about the credibility of the US commitment to the area (who knows if a future administration may militarily re-refocus, so to speak, on the Middle East!), and Japan is unable to provide the necessary security goods, then Vietnam and the Philippines may have no choice but to accommodate China despite the underlying historical anti-Chinese sentiment simmering underneath the surface in both countries. A China-friendly Taiwan and Philippines will not bode well for Japan’s extremely crucial strategic interest in relation to the Luzon Strait. The Malacca Strait is so crucial to every East Asian nation that it is unlikely that any nation in the region will want to politicize or ‘securitize’ navigational freedom through such an important strategic chokepoint. This is not true for the Luzon Strait where only Japan’s national surivival is absolutely dependent on it, although the US’ commercial interests and overall East Asia strategy also revolves around China not asserting controlling influence over the Luzon Strait (and both Japan and the US understood very well that control of the Luzon Strait was crucial to their WWII strategies). Given China’s particularly punitive approach to diplomacy with Japan, as seen in the Senkaku Islands dispute in 2010, and in recent weeks regarding various issues, this may not in the long-term turn out to be a paranoid concern, but something to plan for just in case the engagement branch of Japan’s China hedge fail to bear the desired fruit.

 

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Corey Wallace joined Japan Security Watch in 2011. He writes on Japan security-related topics, focusing on issues and stories that may not find their way into the English language media. He also hosts the blog Sigma1 where he writes on Japanese domestic politics and broader issues in international relations. Prior to taking up a PhD Corey was a participant on the JET program (2004-2007) and on returning to New Zealand he worked at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology from 2007-2010 as a policy adviser. Corey lectures two courses at the University of Auckland. One is on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific, which contains a significant focus on East Asia security issues. The other is a course on China's international relations. His primary academic interests before his current Japan focus were science and technology politics/policy, issues of ethnic identity, and Chinese modern history and politics. He carries over his interest in issues of identity and history into his PhD where he is looking at generationally situated concepts of national identity and their impact on foreign policy ideas in Japan.
Corey Wallace has 17 post(s) on Asia Security Watch