Is Japan about to enter the South China Sea dispute in a concrete way and provide up to 10 Japanese Coast Guard  Ships to the Philippines?

I guess 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 1000-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 ($11 billion US) 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 (日) can be equipped with the Bofors 40mm autocannon or Oerlikon 35 mm 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 cancellations 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’ internal security as well, thus perhaps diluting criticisms of opportunism that could be levelled at it in this particular case. In addition to providing other forms of aid and expertise, Japan has in total provided up to 6 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.

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Corey Wallace joined Japan Security Watch in 2011. He writes on Japan security-related topics, focusing on issues and stories that may not find their way into the English language media. He also hosts the blog Sigma1 where he writes on Japanese domestic politics and broader issues in international relations. Prior to taking up a PhD Corey was a participant on the JET program (2004-2007) and on returning to New Zealand he worked at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology from 2007-2010 as a policy adviser. Corey lectures two courses at the University of Auckland. One is on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific, which contains a significant focus on East Asia security issues. The other is a course on China's international relations. His primary academic interests before his current Japan focus were science and technology politics/policy, issues of ethnic identity, and Chinese modern history and politics. He carries over his interest in issues of identity and history into his PhD where he is looking at generationally situated concepts of national identity and their impact on foreign policy ideas in Japan.
Corey Wallace has 256 post(s) on Japan Security Watch