Evaluating Japan's South China Sea Policy: A Qualified Success?

AuthorYu, Harada

Against the backdrop of China's growing maritime expansionism and rising tensions in the South China Sea, Japan has become increasingly involved in the dispute with a view to maintaining the rules-based regional order. Various scholars have highlighted the limitations of Japan's South China Sea policy, which is characterized by its efforts to both advance security cooperation with regional countries and uphold the rule of law at sea. (1) However, one important question remains to be answered: to what extent has Japan's South China Sea policy been successful? One might argue that Tokyo's efforts have been unsuccessful, as Japan has failed to deter China's unilateral efforts to dominate the South China Sea. If that is true, should we evaluate Japan's South China Sea policy as a failure?

To answer this question, this article examines Japan's South China Sea policy over the past decade and argues that the policy has been a qualified success according to David Baldwin's analytical framework for foreign policy evaluation, which identifies stakes, effectiveness and costs as measures of success. (2) The effectiveness of Japan's policy can be judged by whether the policy meets the following three criteria, which are derived from Japan's stakes in the South China Sea: (1) whether Japan's policy constrains China's attempts to change the status quo; (2) whether the policy helps promote a rules-based order; and (3) the extent to which the policy affects Sino-Japanese relations.

Applying these three criteria, it can be argued that Japan's policy has been relatively effective. First, it facilitates America's military presence in the region, which is necessary to deter China. Second, it seeks to normatively and diplomatically restrict China's activities in the South China Sea, although it clearly falls short of fully restraining China. The policy contributes to upholding the rules-based order in the South China Sea by strengthening selected Southeast Asian states' maritime law enforcement capabilities while avoiding damaging Sino-Japanese relations. The costs that the policy imposes on Japan are limited, as it does not trigger Chinese countermeasures to obstruct Japan's use of sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) in the South China Sea. In addition, the policy does not trigger encroachments by China into the waters surrounding Japan, nor does it generate excessive concerns in Southeast Asia about non-claimants' involvement in the dispute which might otherwise undermine Japan's regional credibility. Instead, the policy imposes costs on China by compelling it to allocate additional material resources and legal efforts to the South China Sea dispute, buying time for regional countries to implement policies to counter China's expansionism. Given China's uncompromising historical and security positions on the South China Sea, the qualified success of Japan's South China Sea policy should be acknowledged.

My analysis provides insights into the role of middle powers in shaping the rules-based regional order. Amid growing uncertainties about increasing competition between the United States and China, the relevance of middle powers, including Japan, in "guaranteeing" regional stability has become an important topic of discussion. (3) In this context, my analysis, which shows that Japan has become an important player in the South China Sea dispute, highlights how Japan's foreign policy as a middle power has enhanced regional stability.

The remainder of the article is organized as follows. The following section provides an overview of how Japan's South China Sea policy has developed over the past decade and reviews previous studies that discuss its limitations. Next, the article applies Baldwin's analytical framework to evaluate the policy and argues that it has achieved a moderate level of success. Finally, the article concludes that despite the policy's limitations, Japan remains a crucial player in challenging China's maritime expansionism in the South China Sea by amplifying the efforts of other countries in the region.

An Overview of Japan's South China Sea Policy

As a user of the South China Sea that places high importance on freedom of navigation, Japan is an important stakeholder in the dispute. The SLOCs that pass through the South China Sea are vital to Japan's energy security, as they connect the country with the Middle East which accounts for about 80 per cent of Japan's crude oil imports. (4) China's increasing maritime expansionism in the South China Sea interferes with Japan's maritime interests as a user state. Therefore, Japan has developed a South China Sea policy that includes the following three pillars: (1) promoting the peaceful settlement of disputes based on international law; (2) advancing security cooperation with Southeast Asian states; and (3) demonstrating the presence of its Self Defence Forces (SDF) in the South China Sea alongside other maritime powers, particularly its ally, the United States.

Promoting the Peaceful Settlement of Disputes Based on International Law

One of the key elements of Japan's South China Sea policy is promoting the peaceful settlement of disputes based on international law, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Japan, along with other regional states, seeks to maintain a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region.

In response to China's growing maritime expansionism in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered a keynote address at the 2014 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in which he emphasized three important principles of the rule of law at sea: first, "states shall make and clarify their claims based on international law"; second, "states shall not use force or coercion in trying to drive their claims"; and third, "states shall seek to settle disputes by peaceful means". (5) These principles were also affirmed at the Japan-chaired Group of Seven summit in 2016. (6)

Japan signalled its support for the rule of law at sea by launching the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) concept in 2016, when then-Prime Minister Abe announced the vision in an address to the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development. (7) The following year, the concept was developed further with more specific ideas that highlighted Japan's attempt to ensure "a free and open maritime order" through "the promotion and establishment of fundamental principles such as the rule of law and freedom of navigation" in the Indo-Pacific. (8) The FOIP concept is expected to be further developed under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's premiership through the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Plan for Peace", which was announced in his keynote address at the 2022 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue. (9)

Japan has worked within ASEAN-led security forums such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS) to promote its views on the South China Sea. Japan's most recent maritime security strategy, the 2018 Basic Plan on Ocean Policy, articulates Japan's intention to use ASEAN-led forums as a venue to advance regional cooperation in strengthening the rules-based maritime order. (10) At these forums, Japan has attempted to foster a shared understanding of the importance of peaceful maritime dispute settlement mechanisms by repeatedly stressing its strong opposition to the lawless activities occurring in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. (11) Despite Japan's lukewarm attitude towards the ARF in the early 2000s due to its limited effectiveness, (12) Japan now gives priority to ARF and EAS meetings in an effort to protect the rules-based maritime order amid rising tensions in the region. (13)

Japan's proactive stance was developed in parallel with efforts by other regional states to establish a rules-based maritime order in the South China Sea. Since 1995, when tensions erupted between China and the Philippines following the former's occupation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, the United States has emphasized the importance of the principles of international law in the South China Sea, including both UNCLOS and freedom of navigation. In 2010, at the ARF, then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton articulated the US position and promoted the further internationalization of the South China Sea dispute. (14) Since 2015, the United States has also conducted frequent Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) to explicitly challenge China's excessive maritime claims. (15) China's claims were further challenged by the Philippines in a 2013 arbitration process under Annex VII of UNCLOS.

In this context, the most significant aspect of Japan's South China Sea policy is that it adds momentum to existing regional endeavours. The FOIP concept has become a banner for concerted international efforts to establish a rules-based order in the region, with the United State incorporating the concept into its 2017 National Security Strategy (16) and 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy. (17) Japan, the United States, Australia and India have also reinforced their commitment to realize the FOIP through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD). (18) In Europe, France, Germany and the European Union (EU) have announced their own vision for a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region. Several European countries, including Britain, France and Germany, have deployed naval vessels to the South China Sea to underscore their determination to preserve freedom of navigation and signal their concern about China's behaviour in the maritime domain. In short, the promotion of a peaceful settlement of maritime disputes based on international law is a key pillar of Japan's South China Sea policy. Japan's efforts have served to bolster the attempts of other countries in the region to preserve the rules-based order.

Advancing Security Cooperation with Southeast Asian States

The second pillar of Japan's South China Sea policy is bilateral and multilateral...

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