Japan at the crossroad of US-China rivalry

Cooperation on maritime security between Japan and US. © Official US Navy imagerie / 2016

Cooperation on maritime security between Japan and US. © Official US Navy imagerie / 2016


Territorial disputes in the South China Sea have persisted for decades. In addition to the important gas and oil reserves the seabed is believed to contain, rich fishing grounds, and strategic sea lanes of communication, the region is today at the center of US-China systemic rivalry. How does Japan fit into this picture?


Lionel Fatton
9 May 2016

Last February, US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed serious concerns about satellite images showing the deployment by China of surface-to-air missile batteries on a contested island in the Paracel chain. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea between nine countries of the region have persisted for decades. Recently, however, China’s massive land reclamation and infrastructure building projects on islands and reefs, as well as a growing militarization of disputes, have pushed international tensions up to a new level.

Beijing claims about 2 million square kilometers of waters, or almost the whole sea, based on the so-called Nine Dash-Line Map allegedly demarcating China’s territory. At stake are the important gas and oil reserves the seabed is believed to contain, rich fishing grounds, and the control of the sea lanes of communication.

Beijing justifies its initiatives in the South China Sea by defense needs and the provision of common goods, including navigation safety. For most of the other countries in the region, however, its policy looks rather aimed at enlarging its exclusive economic zone and at expanding the power projection capacities of its naval forces in a strategically crucial area. China’s behavior toward other claimants, the Philippines and Vietnam in particular, is revealing in this regard. In 2012, China expelled Filipino fishermen from their traditional fishing ground and took control of the Scarborough Shoal, located less than 200 kilometers west of the Philippines’ main island.

Chinese vessels have also harassed Philippine ships operating in the Reed Bank. In 2014, the dispute intensified between Vietnam and China when the latter moved an oil rig and searched for natural resources in contested waters in the Paracel chain. The fact that $5 trillion worth of trade, more than 30 percent of global oil trade, and 50 percent of gas trade transit every year though the South China Sea is not the only reason why the United States is concerned about the potentially destabilizing consequences of Chinese initiatives. If Washington does not take side in territorial disputes, it insists on their peaceful resolution and on the necessity to uphold the “rule-based regional order.”

This reflects the American anxiety about what appears to be China’s growing defiance of the standards and principles of behavior at the basis of an international system profitable to Western countries, and largely created by them in the wake of the Second World War. This apprehension was reinforced late last year when Beijing rejected the jurisdiction of the Permanent Court of Arbitration to rule over contending territorial claims between the Philippines and China. The significance of the South China Sea’s problematic extends well beyond the region.

In order to uphold the regional and international structures and deter China from making destabilizing moves, the United States has undertaken Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) as well as Freedom of Navigation (FON) operations in the South China Sea. A US Navy P8-A Poseidon aircraft overflew in May 2015 islands controlled by China in the Spratly chain. In October, the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen sailed within the 12 nautical miles “territorial water” of an artificial isle built by China in the same chain. Another guided-missile destroyer, the USS Curtis Wilbur, engaged in a similar operation in the Paracel chain in January this year. Other American naval assets, notably the USS John C. Stennis carrier strike group, have patrolled the South China Sea in recent months.

Given the issue at hand and the players involved, it is not surprising that the South China Sea has made newspaper headlines. One country at the center of US-China rivalry often drops out of the picture, however. Japan does not have territorial claim in the region and is dragging around the image of an inward-looking and militarily impotent country since the end of the Second World War. Looking ahead, however, Japan could soon become a key regional actor. Backed by the United States, Tokyo is increasingly eager to play an active role on the international scene and is acquiring the military capabilities to give teeth to its diplomatic undertakings. Since Japan maintains strained relations with China, poisoned by strong nationalist feelings in the two countries and unsettled historical issues, Japanese interference in South China Sea dynamics could result in an explosive situation. The stability of the entire region, and conceivably of the world, is here at stake.


The Japanese security architecture has undergone a sea change under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. Actually, the 2013-15 period represents the climax of a long process during which Japan has gradually reclaimed armed forces as an instrument of foreign policy. The debate on whether Japan should recover the ability to use force began soon after the promulgation in 1946 of the Constitution drafted by the United States, which denied this capacity. As Cold War tensions intermittently peaked, Japan progressed on the path toward normalcy. A new military institution, the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF), was created in 1954 and the Japan-US security alliance was concluded in 1960. The shock of the First Gulf War, when Japan was criticized by the coalition for not having put boots on the ground, further accelerated the process. Two months after the end of the war, in April 1991, Tokyo sent under a special law JSDF minesweeper vessels to the Persian Gulf for the first military dispatch overseas since the Second World War. Other developments of a similar nature followed, such as the refueling operation in the Indian Ocean during the war in Afghanistan.

© Official US Navy imagerie / 2016

© Official US Navy imagerie / 2016


The political agenda of Shinzō Abe, who came back for a second term as prime minister in December 2012, brought new impetus to the process. In December 2013, the government established the National Security Council, dedicated to enhance the executive’s control over the JSDF with regard to foreign policy. Few days after its creation, the council released the National Security Strategy. Based on the assumption that to maintain a stable international environment and to address emerging threats early on is the bedrock of national security, the strategy aims at making Japan a “proactive contributor to global peace.” In addition to North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, the document recognizes Chinese activities in the East and South China Seas as a matter of concern. In view of these challenges, the strategy calls for deepening security cooperation with key regional countries and for establishing an effective military posture in order to respond swiftly to contingencies.

The basics of Japan’s new security policy having been formulated, the Abe cabinet focused on acquiring the tools for its implementation. Two defense buildup programs were compiled along with the National Security Strategy to strengthen the capacities of the JSDF. In April 2014, a ban on arms exports was removed to allow deeper cooperation with partners in weapons’ development and transfer. The 1967 ban, which denied Japan the ability to export to countries subjected to an embargo under UN resolution, to communist states, and to countries involved or likely to be involved in international conflicts, was turned into an almost total prohibition in 1976. The 2014 decision abolished previous restrictions and replaced them by a ban on exports to countries in conflicts and subjected to UN Security Council measures, and on arms transfers that violate UN resolution or Japan’s international obligations.

Three months later, in July 2014, the government reinterpreted the Constitution to allow the use of force to defend another country under armed attack, even if Japan’s is not directly targeted. Three conditions were attached: the country in question is “in a close relationship with Japan” and the attack endangers Japan’s survival and its “people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”; there is no other means to repel the attack; and the use of force is kept to a minimum. Previous cabinets had maintained that the exercise of the so-called right of collective self-defense was forbidden by the Constitution, because it would go beyond the minimum necessary for national defense and thus violate the principle of an exclusively defense-oriented posture.

The reinterpretation of the Constitution had important consequences for the Japan-US alliance. The 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security only implied reciprocal assistance in case of attack on Japan’s territory. The duties of Tokyo and the scope of the alliance were later expanded by the guidelines for the operationalization of the agreement, released in 1978, 1997, and most decisively in April 2015. The latter guidelines recognize for the first time the global nature of the alliance and aim at ensuring Japan’s security “from peacetime to contingencies.” As such, they provide the country with the ability to cooperate without geographical or time constraint with the United States in order to guarantee international security, including through joint efforts in maritime security, ISR operations, and the capacity building of third countries. Finally, the guidelines enshrine the right of collective self-defense, stating that Japan and the United States can jointly respond to an attack against a third country even if Japan has not been


The approval of the latest guidelines did not put an end to Shinzō Abe’s efforts to revamp the Japanese security architecture, as the activities of the country inside the alliance have to be conformed to domestic laws. In late April 2015, the prime minister announced before US Congress that Japan’s defense legislation would be modified shortly in line with the guidelines. Two security bills were approved by the cabinet in May and adopted by the Diet in September 2015. The first law provides a permanent basis that enables the JSDF to bring logistical support to other armed forces during UN peacekeeping missions. The second revised 10 existing JSDF regulations. Among other things, it authorizes collective self-defense and cooperation without geographical constraint with foreign countries in cases of threat to Japan’s security. The latter revisions are revolutionary in the sense that the role of the JSDF has until now been limited to the defense of the Japanese territory.

Though not directly involved in territorial disputes, Japan shares the concern of the United States regarding Chinese initiatives in the South China Sea. The Japanese economy is highly dependent on imports, of energy supply in particular, the near totality of which transits through the sea. Stability in the region is vital for Japan. For this reason, Tokyo seeks to uphold key principles of international law such as the peaceful settlement of disputes and the freedom of navigation. In view of the apparent inefficacy of a purely diplomatic approach, Japan is becoming more involved in the South China Sea in order to push Beijing to abide by the “rule-based regional order” and preserve the “status quo.”

Japan’s new security architecture provides key tools for doing so. The recovery of the right of collective self-defense, the ability to cooperate with other countries on security issues without geographical constraint, and the removal of the ban on arms exports allow the Japanese government to engage important regional players and to reinforce their military capacity to resist China. The new charter of Official Development Assistance, revised in February 2015, completes Japan’s arsenal. For the first time, the charter authorizes Tokyo to use development budget to train and support foreign armed forces for non-military purposes, including coast guard operations. The Abe cabinet has today the legal basis, and the will, to implement a strategy of “offshore balancing” in the South China Sea aimed at deterring China from pursuing destabilizing

A first pillar of Japan’s regional policy is Vietnam. In August 2014, five months after bilateral relations were elevated to the level of Extensive Strategic Partnership, Tokyo promised to deliver six secondhand patrol vessels to Hanoi for the modest price of about $4.5 million. Meeting in Tokyo in September 2015, Shinzō Abe and Nguyen Phu Trong, General Secretary of Vietnam’s Communist Party, jointly expressed concerns about Chinese activities in the South China Sea and reaffirmed the importance of upholding the freedom of navigation in the region.

The Japanese prime minister also pledged to provide additional ships at Hanoi’s request. Discussions are today ongoing between the armed forces of the two countries to begin joint naval exercises. Last April, two JSDF vessels and one submarine made a port call at the strategic naval base of Cam Ranh Bay after having anchored in Subic Bay, in the Philippines.

The second pillar of Japan’s strategy of offshore balancing is the Philippines. Cooperation on maritime security with Manila began earlier than with Hanoi, with an agreement in principle reached in September 2011 in this regard. In July 2013, Shinzō Abe unveiled a plan to provide the Philippines with 10 patrol ships through a yen loan. 2015 was a pivotal year for bilateral relations. During a visit to Tokyo in June, Philippine President Benigno Aquino stressed the importance of concluding a Visiting Forces Agreement which would permit JSDF vessels to refuel in Philippine ports and take part in joint military exercises. He also said he would welcome Japanese patrols in international waters in the South China Sea. Shinzō Abe, for his part, reaffirmed his willingness to boost the capacities of the Philippine Coast Guard, including through the supply of vessels. Lastly, in February this year, the two countries inked an agreement on the transfer of defense equipment.


The Japanese government also engages other countries in the region and beyond. Japan and Malaysia agreed in May 2015 to start discussing about a pact for the supply of defense equipment, though negotiations seem to be progressing at a slow pace. In March 2015, Japan and Indonesia signed an agreement for the joint development of military assets and the training of the Indonesian armed forces. In December of the same year, the two countries agreed to begin negotiations on an agreement for the transfer of defense equipment, like with Malaysia and the Philippines. Finally, Japan is reinforcing its strategic partnerships with more distant but powerful players. With Australia, Tokyo signed a pact for the supply of military assets in July 2014, and the two countries are on the verge of concluding a Visiting Forces Agreement. In December 2015, Japan and India inked two agreements, one on the transfer of defense equipment and the other on the protection of defense-related information.

The reach of Japan’s strategy of offshore balancing around the South China Sea remains limited. Though Tokyo has used new instruments at its disposal to get closer to key countries and to reinforce their military capacity to resist China, the level of political investment and the supply of defense equipment have been relatively small. This must not hide the fact that enormous progresses have been made over the past few years to reposition Japan inside the regional geopolitical landscape. The question today is not whether Tokyo will continue to support what it perceives as strategic partners.

The coming conclusion of several agreements will strengthen security cooperation between Japan and these countries. Rather, the question mark hovers over whether the Japanese government will push its military and political involvement up to another level. Tokyo has yet to exploit its ultimate tools, the right of collective self-defense and the ability to undertake regional military operations for the maintenance of international security.

As mentioned above, Japan and the United States share similar concerns about China’s activities in the South China Sea. The Americans have also adopted a strategy of offshore balancing toward the region. In addition to their ambiguous support to Taiwan, they are bolstering ties with countries like Vietnam and the Philippines. Washington has gone further than its Japanese ally by conducting FON and ISR operations. However, the Rebalance to Asia policy adopted by the administration of President Barack Obama puts strain on the national budget. The United States is consequently pushing Japan to share the burden of maritime security and participate in operations in the South China Sea.

After meeting in April 2015 with US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said Japan would examine the possibility of conducting joint operations with US forces. While discussions were ongoing at the military level, the pressure on the Japanese leadership grew after the USS Lassen sailed into what China considers as its territorial waters. The Abe cabinet hailed the move, and in November 2015 the prime minister was reported saying to Barack Obama: “With regard to activity by the Self-Defense Forces in the South China Sea, I will consider it while focusing on what effect the situation has on Japan’s security.” One day later, however, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga made clear that “the JSDF has no plans to participate in the US freedom of navigation operations”.

The current ambiguity in Japan’s position on the issue of participation in FON and ISR operations in the South China Sea is primarily explained by domestic factors. If the defense legislation has been an impediment to a more active role of the country in regional affairs, this is no longer the case after the revamp of the Japanese security architecture. Rather, the Abe cabinet is today constrained by domestic opposition, both societal and political.

This opposition is closely related to the undemocratic nature of the process by which the government modified Japan’s security architecture. The reinterpretation of the Constitution is contested because made against the will of the majority of Japanese people. The Abe cabinet’s obvious disregard for massive public rallies held against the reinterpretation and the security bills has left the impression that an important portion of the population has been bypassed. Following the adoption of the bills in September 2015, domestic opposition is crystallizing around the enduring uncertainty regarding the concrete consequences of the new security architecture. The government provided scenarios for the use of the JSDF under the new legislation and promised that Japan would not be dragged into war. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the population remains unconvinced and fears involvement in armed conflict.

© Official US Navy imagerie / 2016

© Official US Navy imagerie / 2016


This greatly reduces the leeway of the Abe cabinet on the issue of FON and ISR operations in the South China Sea, let alone extending collective self-defense to a regional player. Such moves would raise public outcry by being interpreted as a confirmation that Japan is heading toward a confrontational posture against China. Moreover, the government is currently trying to detract public attention from security issues ahead of the Upper House elections scheduled for next July, and to redirect it toward the more politically lucrative topic of economic revitalization. Under the present circumstances, therefore, new initiatives in the security domain would be highly counterproductive for the Abe cabinet.


On the other hand, the opposition has begun to organize and is determined to keep security issues under the spotlight in order to capitalize on them. The vocal Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy and other civil society organizations formed recently a broad coalition aimed at supporting political parties opposed to the new defense legislation. In parallel, the Democratic Party of Japan and the Japan Innovation Party, respectively the largest and third-largest opposition parties, merged last March to create the Democratic Party.

The party aims at foiling the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Kômeitô group ahead of next summer’s elections. It seeks to revoke the elements of the security bills that violate the Constitution and to obtain a divided-Diet situation, in which the ruling bloc would possess the majority in only one of the two chambers. Other political parties are rallying around the Democratic Party, though it remains to be seen to what extent the members of the heterogeneous grouping can work together.

With achievements in the economic domain and a victory in the coming Upper House elections, the Abe cabinet may somehow mitigate the restraining effect domestic opposition has on its policy toward the South China Sea. In the longer term, however, whether or not domestic opposition can maintain a meaningful constraining influence on the government will depend in large part on the attitude of China. Economic and election successes will not allow the Abe cabinet to justify a greater involvement in the South China Sea; further Chinese provocations might.

So far, Beijing’s behavior in the region has been equivocal, blowing hot and cold and switching between phases of appeasement and harassment of neighboring countries. The ambiguity surrounding Chinese intentions allows the Japanese opposition to stress the inadequacy of Japan becoming more active on the regional scene and vainly antagonizing its largest trading partner. But if the population becomes convinced that China’s behavior in the South China Sea threatens Japan’s security, the Abe cabinet could obtain a blank check for a greater involvement in the region. Though extending collective self-defense to countries like the Philippines seems today a remote possibility, patrolling international waters in the South China Sea could rapidly be within Tokyo’s reach. And the risk of Sino-Japanese clashes would increase tremendously.


Dr Lionel P. Fatton is a Doctoral Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), a Research Associate at the Centre de recherches internationales (CERI), Sciences Po Paris, and a Foreign Correspondent to the United Nations in Geneva for the Japanese news agency Kyodo News. This article is a revised version of a paper titled “Japan’s New Security Policy: Toward Regional Involvement at Sea?” and published by the GCSP in the series Strategic Security Analysis.