By Yuichi Hosoya / Special to The Yomiuri ShimbunThe South China Sea appears to be calm, beautiful and peaceful. In this sea of calmness, the marvelous setting sun reddens the sky far in the distance. However, many lights can be seen on the horizon at night. They are flames burning atop the offshore oil drilling rigs, indicating that undersea natural resources exist beneath.
Today, the South China Sea is the focus of the world’s attention because of ongoing territorial disputes. The sea is regarded as the location most likely to become a conflict flashpoint between great powers. Japan has been increasing its efforts to contribute to the stability of the area.
In November last year, Japan announced the “Vientiane Vision,” Defense Minister Tomomi Inada’s initiative for enhancing defense cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, during the second bilateral defense ministers’ meeting in the Laotian capital.
The vision is epoch-making in that it aims to help improve ASEAN’s overall defense capabilities by sharing knowledge about international law, foster cooperation in various fields such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and develop human resources pertaining to defense equipment and technology.
As such, after decades of economic and cultural cooperation, Japan and ASEAN are now collaborating in the field of defense, too. But, apparently reflecting their concern over a possible backlash from China, Japan-ASEAN defense cooperation is limited to peacetime activities, such as joint disaster relief and search and rescue operations and defense personnel exchanges, among other areas.
As part of bilateral defense cooperation based on the Vientiane Vision, the Izumo, one of the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s largest destroyers, carried young ASEAN naval officers and journalists on a tour of the South China Sea on June 19-23. The helicopter-loaded destroyer left Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, in May on a three-month cruise, undertaking multinational maritime exercises and participating in a Singapore Navy-organized international maritime review.
During the Izumo’s tour of the South China Sea, the Japanese side offered an international law seminar and disaster relief drills to ASEAN naval officers, who also interacted with MSDF members as well as Japanese Defense Ministry officials, journalists and international relations scholars.
The event was the first of its kind organized by the MSDF and the Defense Ministry, and there was a sense of the Japanese side doing everything from scratch. Nonetheless, the nation’s “omotenashi” style of hospitality and the open-hearted attitude of the young ASEAN participants helped to create a cheerful and friendly atmosphere throughout the tour.
One of the ASEAN naval officers I spoke with aboard the Izumo said, as his eyes shone, that his stay aboard the vessel was the most exciting experience he had had since joining the military. He appeared impressed by the disciplined behavior of the MSDF members and the impeccable chain of command on board the destroyer.
Southeast Asian countries’ trust in Japan has made it possible for an MSDF vessel to conduct such an extended cruise of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.
Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, was once openly critical of the overseas dispatch of Self-Defense Forces, even on a U.N.-led peacekeeping mission, likening it to “offering whiskey bon-bon to an alcoholic” on the wagon.
In sharp contrast, the Singapore of today welcomes Japan’s security activities in Southeast Asia, and expects Japan to play a greater role in the field of defense. The Vientiane Vision is a step that represents such expectations.
Today’s environment, in which Southeast Asia countries have placed their expectations on Japan for security activities in the region, can be said to be a fortunate outcome of Japan’s decades-old determination to lead as a peace-loving country.
None of the Southeast Asian countries think Japan will again launch a war of aggression against them. ASEAN member states abhor the possibility of a military clash between the United States and China, and want to avert a situation in which they would be forced to take the side of one of the two biggest powers. Therefore, it is thought that they have put more expectations on security policies that take a nonmilitary approach, as pursued by Japan.
The government’s National Security Strategy, released in December 2013, stated under the subtitle, Ensuring Maritime Security: “As a maritime state, Japan will play a leading role, through close cooperation with other countries, in maintaining and developing ‘open and stable seas,’ which are upheld by maritime order based upon such fundamental principles as the rule of law, ensuring the freedom and safety of navigation and overflight, and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with relevant international law.”
Japan has no intention of carrying out naval “freedom of navigation” operations as a show of force in the South China Sea, for example, as the U.S. Navy does, let alone attempting to bring Southeast Asia under its control as it did in the past. Truly, the role Japan plays in the South China Sea remains very limited.
‘Open and stable seas’
It is my impression that changes have been seen on the part of the countries surrounding the South China Sea over the past two or three years. In my observation, countries including China are recognizing, albeit gradually, the importance of complying with international law in the region.
Although China shows no signs of compromising on its “core interests,” it now tends to behave in a more conscientious way regarding international rules and manners, as long as its core interests are not breached.
At the same time, ASEAN member states are gradually improving their capabilities to defend their respective territorial waters on the basis of international law. They are doing this by utilizing their own security resources, which have apparently been strengthened with continued assistance from Japan.
If “open and stable seas” are established in the region, it will mark a major achievement from a Japanese perspective. But China’s military activities are still unpredictable, and it remains ambitious and active in militarizing the Spratly Islands.
Let me turn to the importance of possessing military forces, which should not be ruled out. Having a sufficient level of military force does not contradict the will to resolve difficult diplomatic issues. These two matters can, in fact, complement each other.
In the 19th century, Britain took advantage of its military strength in securing peace through negotiations. In 1830, Lord Palmerston, the then foreign secretary of Britain, convened the London Conference to discuss the Belgian-Dutch conflict triggered by Belgium’s separation from the Kingdom of the Netherlands. He eventually led the conference to agree to a compromise, avoiding war.
The success of the London Conference was possible because of two factors. First, the major European powers attending the conference had a certain level of trust in Britain as a country that would keep abiding by international rules and manners. Second, Britain made it clear that it had no territorial ambitions on the continent.
Since the middle of the 1960s, despite limited national strength, Japan has contributed to the peace, stability and economic development of Southeast Asia. In tandem with Japan’s continued cooperation, people in the region have developed a robust trust in Japan.
Seventy-five years ago, Japan deployed Imperial Japanese Navy warships to Southeast Asia, bringing war to the region. Now, together with the MSDF destroyer Izumo, Japan should promote peace, stability and the rule of law.
■ Hosoya is a professor of international politics at Keio University and the author of numerous books on British, European and Japanese politics and foreign affairs, including his latest titles, “Meisosuru Igirisu: EU Ridatsu to Oshu no Kiki” (Whither Britain? — The Brexit and the EU in Crisis) as well as “Sengo Nippon no Rekishi Ninshiki” (Postwar Japan’s Historical Perceptions), a coauthored book.Speech