Disputes in the South China Sea: Is Japan Coming to the Rescue?
The timing could not be better for the Philippines given the current tensions surrounding the Scarborough Shoal standoff. However the news is not yet official as the Japanese government has not confirmed the transfer, probably concerned about the diplomatic timing of such an announcement. According to news sources the discussion about providing vessels, including the Japan Coast Guard’s oldest 1,000-ton patrol vessels (Shiretoko-class), took place before the current standoff and thus may not be directly related to current tensions. They are to be provided as part of an ODA package to the Philippines – which they would gladly receive considering the government recently identified the need for 500 billion Philippine pesos (US$11 billion) in order to “effectively secure the nation’s territorial waters.”
While the Japanese government may not want to confirm the transfer during the period of tension, it will probably be hard for them to back down from what seems to be an informal promise made prior to the Scarborough Shoal tensions. In addition, both the Philippines defense secretary and the vice-admiral of the Philippines Coast Guard have publicly stated their expectations of Japan. The Yomiuri’s May 24 article also seems to suggest that this is still being considered by the Japanese government, so at some stage it will likely go ahead. According to the Jakarta Post the easing of the arms export restrictions last year may have played a role in the agreement to transfer these vessels for the purpose of helping the Philippines in enhancing their maritime security. Considering the Shiretoko-class vessels can be equipped with the Bofors 40mm auto-cannon or Oerlikon 35mm twin cannon (as well as the M61 Vulcan), then this could well be the second new defense equipment relationship struck up between Japan since the restrictions were relaxed in December last year.
This is an interesting dilemma for the Japanese government. On the one hand, failure to go through with the promise would likely disappoint the Philippines, a valuable diplomatic and now security partner, and also paint Japan as again bending to diplomatic pressure from China – with all of the domestic and international implications that would lead to. On the other hand, going through with the transfer would draw a straight line between the relaxation of the export restrictions and Japan bulking up China’s ‘adversaries’, as the Chinese would likely put it. All the more so because this would likely be the first actual transfer of defense equipment/arms since the relaxation, perhaps pointing to a sign of things to come for the Chinese side. One wonders whether this, in addition to Japan’s right wing, almost comically, sponsoring the World Uighur Conference, explains some of the rash of cancelations by China of meetings between officials.
It is important to point out however that Japan may transfer the vessels stripped of some or all of their weapons, such as the US did/will do with its transfer of USCG cutters to the Philippines. Also the Philippines does have genuine security issues that go beyond a concern with China and territorial disputes – in fact on a day to day basis piracy and drug trafficking, to name but two maritime problems they have, are probably more of a concern to the Philippines. Like Indonesia, the military has traditionally been focused on internal security and its ability to perform even the basic roles a nation would expect of its navy in terms of external defense is genuinely quite poor. In this context it is important to note that Japan has been playing an important role in the Philippines’s internal security as well, thus perhaps diluting criticisms of opportunism that could be leveled at it in this particular case.
In addition to providing other forms of aid and expertise, Japan has in total provided up to six billion PhP (US$130 million) in ODA to the Philippines for the Mindanao peace process, and in particular to the J-BIRD program that was launched in 2006. Mindanao is of course the area in the southern, predominantly Muslim, part of the Philippines were an ongoing insurgency and violence between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
This was originally published in Japan Security Watch.
Japan Security Watch is a continuing examination of Japanese security issues and the Self Defense Forces of Japan.
The Nine-Dotted Line (which the Vietnamese refer to as the Ox's Tounge) is what China claims as their territory: