South China Sea and Japan
On the South China Sea issue, although Japan is not a claimant country, it fears that China’s attempts to assert sovereignty over the South China Sea will embolden Beijing in its dispute with Japan over the Senkakus (Diaoyu Islands). Tokyo hopes to strengthen ASEAN unity on its policy with China over the South China Sea. After the judgment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) regarding the South China Sea dispute in July 2016, Cambodia became a major supporter for Beijing by blocking mention of the international tribunal ruling within the consensus-based ASEAN. Japan tried to change Cambodia’s position through infrastructure support commitments.
Tokyo’s own security interests and geopolitical considerations for its position within the Asian security order—in particular, its competition with a rising China—drive its approach toward the South China Sea. Furthermore, Japan’s perspective toward the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in maritime trade traverses annually, is informed by the overall importance of the region for global commerce. In particular, as a net importer of energy, Japan’s energy security is highly dependent on commercial sea lanes crossing the South China Sea. Keeping sea lanes open to free navigation and overflight is thus central to Japan’s grand strategic thinking about the South China Sea. Following China, Japan is the world’s largest net importer of fossil fuels. Notably, 83 percent of Japan’s energy imports originate in the Middle East and pass through the strategically pivotal Malacca Strait before making their way through the South China Sea to access the waters of the western Pacific, between the First and Second Island Chains, on their way to Japanese ports.
The Government of Japan believes that the South China Sea issue is directly related to peace and stability of the region. More importantly, however, Japan recognizes the possibility of conflict in the region as a threat to the integrity of the international maritime order as a whole.
Japan’s policy towards the South China Sea is likely to have a considerable bearing on the future shape of the regional order in this region although ultimately US-China competition and the reaction of the other countries around the SCS will have a more decisive bearing.
Important economic interests are related to Japan’s involvement in the off-shore (as well as onshore) prospection and extraction of oil and gas resources in the South China Sea region in order to pursue the goal of diversification of supply of hydrocarbon as well as the marketing of Japan’s high technology services in the energy sector.
But not only economic interests but also geostrategic concerns have made the stability of the ASEAN member states of central importance to Japan. Next to Japan’s dependence on the freedom of navigation through the South China Sea , it is the nexus of its security alliance with the US and the interdependence of the security in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Standing up to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and supporting in some way the other littoral states of the SCS is perceived as necessary to maintain US support against Chinese policies in the East China Sea.
Until recently, Japan mostly contributed to stability of the region through economic means. The Japanese government has started helping the more vocal SCS littoral states with their coast guard and military capacity. The increased Japanese involvement in the security of the SCS has been very much promoted by the US through various new bilateral defence policy agreements.
In contrast to its reticence and hesitant attitude in the 1990s, Japan’s current approach to the South China Sea has been much more active and multi-dimensional. The Japanese government has been eager to actively participate in ASEAN-centered security dialogues. The basic strategy Tokyo has employed in multilateral arenas is to include the concept of maritime security on the agenda, emphasizing the importance of resolving territorial disputes in a peaceful manner and securing freedom of navigation.
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