Japan Enters South China Sea Dispute

Japan Enters South China Sea Dispute

The sun also rises

Boosting and training coast guards is a civilian-power solution to tensions in the East and South China Seas

In the coming months, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague is set to issue its judgment on the case brought by the Philippines that challenges China’s claims in the South China Sea. Beijing appears to be anticipating an unfavorable ruling and is reaffirming its stance on the illegitimacy of the UN tribunal.

Beijing has long argued that such disputes should be solved bilaterally and rejects international intervention. This non-multilateral strategy to negotiations works in China’s favor, leaving the claimants and other interested nations weak and divided on maritime security issues. But a united regional front is exactly what is needed to uphold the rules-based order and respond to China’s attempts to gradually change the status quo by coercive means.

Mindful of its own tensions with Beijing in the East China Sea, and of the importance of avoiding a split between Asia and the Pacific, Tokyo is now stepping forward to take the lead in strengthening policy coordination on maritime security. Japan is pioneering a civilian power approach that may offer an alternative to military solutions.

With financial backing from the Japan International Cooperation Agency, or JICA, the nation is trying to strengthen the region’s civilian law-enforcement apparatus. One major initiative is a new master’s program in “Maritime Safety and Security Policy,” jointly administered by the Japan Coast Guard, JCG, and the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

The goal of the one-year course is to develop a network of future leaders, by offering an opportunity for junior coast guard officers from Asia to spend half a year studying in Tokyo and the other half at Japan’s coast guard academy in Hiroshima. Students currently enrolled in the program come from Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Desperate for a non-military to disputes in the South China Sea, ASEAN countries are increasingly interested in the JCG role in maritime law enforcement.

The JCG is a civilian force under the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism that is tasked with protecting Japan’s territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone – the sixth largest EEZ in the world at approximately 4.47 million square kilometers. Open and safe sea lanes are an existential challenge for Japan, a resource-poor island nation.

The JCG has a successful history of managing threats in the maritime sphere. For example in the 1990s and early 2000s, North Korea’s aggressive espionage operations in Japanese territorial waters were thwarted. Perhaps the most notable incident was in December 2001 when the JCG pursued what was later discovered to be a North Korean spy boat in the sea off south Japan. While fleeing, the North Korean boat attacked the JCG patrol boat with automatic machine guns and a rocket launcher, after which the JCG shot in self-defense. The spy boat soon sank of its own devices, and the rescued crewmembers were later brought to trial. The JCG’s ability to respond has allowed Japan to avoid resorting to military options in maintaining stability.

The JCG is highly trusted in Japan and has strong public support. The JCG even made its way into popular culture with Umizaru, or Sea Monkey, a manga series later adapted into a TV show and movie that follows the life a JCG officer on search-and-rescue missions.

However, over the past decade the JCG has faced unprecedented challenges to its ability to uphold the rule of law. Chinese vessels have increasingly entered into waters claimed by Japan and aggressively contested Japan’s territorial sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands. Tensions have been somewhat diffused since escalations in 2010 when the JCG arrested a Chinese fishing trawler captain for ramming Japanese patrol boats, and in 2012 following the Japanese government’s purchase of the islands from its former private owner.

Despite the fact that China Coast Guard patrol boats now regularly enter the waters surrounding the Senkakus to assert their presence, a mechanism for stabilizing the situation has been built. Known as the 3-3-2 formula, three Chinese patrol boats enter the waters near the Senkakus three times a month for up to two hours each time, and leave after receiving a warning from the JCG.  This is by no means a resolution, but solving disputes is not the JCG’s goal. Its objective is to preserve the status quo through civilian law enforcement, and military options do not feature into the equation. It is a peace-building process that paves the way for diplomatic solutions to be explored.

The China Coast Guard’s massive CCG 2901 patrol vessel recently assigned to the East China Sea division has raised fears that the peace maintained by the coast guard is in jeopardy. The new vessel far surpasses JCG vessels and is equipped with military-type weapons, signaling China’s intentions to intimidate. The danger here is if Japan responds by calling upon its self-defense forces, JSDF, to intervene or by beefing up its own coast guard with larger boats and more powerful weapons.

A coast guard arms race could ensue that may see the coast guard transgress its civilian mandate. Indeed, the CCG 2901 is designed to test Japan’s resolve and exploit the gray areas of remit between the JCG and JSDF.  

Similarly, China has launched another “monster” vessel, CCG 3901, which has set ASEAN nations on alert at the prospect of further militarization in the South China Sea. Regardless of such posturing, China has signaled that it does not want to engage in a military conflict over disputed islets and waters. Japan and ASEAN nations must therefore be careful not to react unwittingly to China’s provocations.

The Philippines vs China arbitration case ruling is set to become a defining moment for the future trajectory of China’s engagement with South China Sea claimant nations. One outcome is that Beijing will react by stepping-up its unilateral revisionist behavior as a bold statement of intent. On the other hand, victory for Rodrigo Duterte, president elect of the Philippines, has opened up the possibility of the country using a successful ruling as leverage at a bilateral negotiation table with China.

Current ritualization of interactions between the Japanese and Chinese coast guards in the East China Sea should be further entrenched. An alternative approach to maritime security has evolved – a tacit form of strategic ambiguity that doesn’t disturb the status quo and can steer both nations away from armed solutions towards diplomatic solutions. The success of this coast guard–maintained peace model has significant implications for the South China Sea and offers potential for replication.

In line with its shifting strategic identity towards proactive pacifism, Japan is expanding its military capacity-building assistance to ASEAN countries. But this is not enough, and carries risks of misunderstandings and miscalculations. Based on its own experiences in the East China Sea, Japan’s concept of capacity-building should be centered on rule making and law enforcement by civilian institutions. The JCG-led professional graduate program is one step in the right direction to constructing this new regional architecture.

A non-military approach can also open the path for greater policy coordination between ASEAN members that have struggled to form a shared position on how to respond to China’s great wall-of-sand construction.

As the scope of the JCG increases, Japan should become a forerunner in promoting a vision of a nation and region that pursues “global civilian power” in managing maritime security tensions.

Yoichi Funabashi is former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun and the author of many books.

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