Japan and the South China Sea Conflict

Imagine this scenario: China decides to erect another offshore oil digging rig this time in waters in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines. It surrounds the rig with numerous coast guard vessels. Manila calls for help from its good, long-time alliance partner the United States. But it also appeals for help to another “close ally” – Japan.

Already embroiled in an increasingly dangerous standoff with China over a bunch of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, could Japan be dragged into the South China Sea cauldron too? It is by no means farfetched to speculate on this possibility depending on how Tokyo ultimately defines the nation’s right to “collective self-defense.”

Collective self-defense is a military term created by Japanese legal scholars several decades ago, relating to policies that basically prohibit Japanese armed forces from firing on any foreign armed forces save for one that might be directly invading the home islands of Japan itself. It served Japan well during the Cold War era, but the prohibition is weakening due to the increasingly changing nearby security situation.

It would result in the most fundamental change in Japan’s defense posture since Tokyo adopted amendments to the Self-Defense Act to allow Japanese soldiers to participate in UN-peace-keeping operations beginning with Cambodia in 1991.

Last week, a 14-member government panel appointed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe released its much anticipated report, calling on Japan to significantly modify its definition of self-defense under its pacifistic constitution to permit Japanese armed forces, if necessary, to fight alongside its formal ally or any country with which has a “close relationship.”

The term seems to be deliberately ambiguous, as it could be argued that Tokyo maintains a “close relationship” with many countries. For example, Tokyo and Canberra have recently signed a defense logistics agreement for the “close cooperation between the [Japan] Self-Defense Forces and Australian Defense Forces.”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was invited to be the first foreign leader to attend a meeting of Japan’s new National Security Council during a recent visit to Tokyo. India and Japan touted their close relationship during Abe’s state visit last January, punctuated by the sale of Japanese-made amphibious patrol aircraft to India. Japan is also planning to sell 10 vessels to augment the Philippine Coast Guard.

The Philippine ambassador to Japan, Manuel Lopez, seemed to be anticipating further security ties with Japan when he told Kyodo news service this week that his country should bolster maritime cooperation with Japan as well as the US to deter China’s growing assertiveness at sea. Being essentially defenseless, the Philippines needs the help of countries such as the US and Japan. “[Japan’s] experience in maritime matters will certainly be a great help to us,” Lopez said.

The bubbling tensions in the South China Sea, where China and Vietnam are involved in a dangerous standoff over an oil rig that Hanoi claims is in its 200-mile economic exclusion zone (EEZ) serves as a backdrop to Japan’s decisions on legalizing what it considers its UN-chartered right to help defend allies under an armed attack.

In its report, the Advisory Panel on the Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security stated that one of the scenarios for collective self-defense would be “when a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan comes under and armed attack and if such a situation has the potential to significantly affect the security of Japan.”

It could be argued that almost any such situation in the South China Sea would have an impact on Japan’s security. The energy-scarce country is even more dependent on free-passage of tankers and other ships through the South China Sea than the US. “We cannot be indifferent to the situation in the South China Sea,” said the panel’s deputy chairman Shinichi Kitaoka as quoted in the Stars and Stripes.

The right to collective self-defense is very close to Abe’s heart. He actually formed the panel during his first term of office (2006-2007). It languished under the Democratic Party of Japan government, but was revived with a vengeance when the premier’s party won a landslide general election victory near the end of 2012.

It is by no means certain that the final decisions on this issue will take into account all of the panel’s recommendations.

“Abe is a practical politician, and his priorities are not as expansive as those on the panel. His main purpose is to create a legal climate that allows the self-defense forces to cooperate with other forces,” says Sheila Smith of the US Council on Foreign Relations.

He will also examine needed new legislation and identify specific situations where the right of collective self-defense might be permissible if an armed attack is made on another country that significantly affects the security of Japan, she says.

It also coincides with the ongoing official review of the US-Japan security guidelines which advise the two government how their militaries operate under the security agreement, including emphasis on new contingencies such as the Senkaku/Daioyu dispute, and the increasing number of situations, usually connected with UN peacekeeping, where the use of force by Japan may be necessary.

Abe hopes to get the cabinet to sign off on collective self-defense by the end of June, but a foreign ministry official stressed that there is no timeline. To affect the changes, about a dozen laws will have to be passed or amended that will extend the debate well into the fall if not next spring, sources say.

Most public opinion polls in Japan show considerable skepticism if not downright opposition to the changes. However, the main opposition in parliament to the policy changes is coming not from the official opposition but from New Komeito, which is actually a part of the government.

Komeito is significantly more pacifist than Abe’s party, but it is not expected that it would leave the coalition over this issue. But it is likely that the government might have to water down some of the provisions to gain the party’s acquiescence.