Author: Tomohiko Satake, NIDS
Amid the increasing tensions in the South China Sea the United States has called for its regional allies to more actively support its freedom of navigation (FON) operations. But despite their political support for the operations, it seems that neither Tokyo nor Canberra are willing to put their support into direct action.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe explicitly ruled out the possibility of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) directly engaging with the FON operations early on, although he did not deny the possibility of the SDF being dispatched to the South China Sea in a future contingency. And while Australia has reportedly considered conducting its own FON exercise, the Turnbull government has so far avoided provoking China — its top trading partner — by expanding its military activities in the region.
But this does not mean that Japan and Australia are indifferent, nor ‘free-riding’ on US efforts to resolve the South China Sea issue. Instead, both countries have gradually enhanced their defence engagement with Southeast Asia. This could provide indirect but more substantial support to US FON operations than direct engagement. This enhancement strategy seems to consist of three elements: enhancing their presence, expanding partnerships and coalition-building.
First, both Japan and Australia have enhanced their presence in the region through increasing the number of joint bilateral and trilateral military exercises, patrolling and port visits to maritime countries in Southeast Asia. Since last year, Japan’s P3C aircrafts have visited Vietnam twice on the way back home from anti-piracy activities off the coast of Somalia. Japan also conducted its first bilateral maritime and air exercises with the Philippines in 2015 and its first bilateral Table-Top Exercise for search and rescue with Vietnam in February 2016.
In April 2016, a Japanese submarine with two destroyers visited the Philippines’ Subic Bay — the first port visit by Japanese submarines to the Philippines in 15 years. In the same month, Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) helicopter destroyer passed the South China Sea to participate in multilateral naval exercises hosted by Indonesia, and two other MSDF destroyers made a first port call at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam.
Likewise, Australia has recently reviewed and enhanced its defence commitment to Southeast Asia by increasing the frequency of its long-standing patrolling exercises with P3C aircraft and sailing warships through the Spratly Islands. In the longer term, the Australian Defence Force is looking to build up its maritime capabilities, which will strengthen its strategic presence in the South China Sea. According to the 2016 Defence White Paper of Australia, securing its nearer region, including ‘maritime Southeast Asia’, is now Australia’s second highest priority after the defence of Australia itself.
Second, both countries have strengthened their partnerships with Southeast Asian countries through capacity-building and defence equipment cooperation. Japan has not only agreed to provide patrol boats to the Philippines, but is also reportedly considering transferring training aircraft (TC-90) for maritime surveillance activities in the Spratly Islands. Japan held its first ‘two-plus-two’ meeting with Indonesia in December 2015, agreeing to negotiate the transfer of defence equipment and technology.
Australia has also quietly strengthened its bilateral maritime partnerships in Southeast Asia. Australia transferred its Customs and Border Protection Vessel (ACV) to its Malaysian counterpart agency in February 2015 and donated two decommissioned Heavy Landing Craft (LCHs) to the Philippines in November 2015 (three more were sold at a friendship price in March this year). Australia has also upgraded its defence and security cooperation with Vietnam, concluded ‘strategic partnerships’ with both Singapore and Malaysia, and is in the process of renewing its defence pact with Indonesia in order to expand defence exchange between two countries.
Third, on top of the strong Japan–Australia security ties, both nations have quietly promoted building loose coalitions through strategic dialogue and military exercises. A good example of this is the trilateral foreign secretary-level meetings between Japan, Australia and India in June 2015 and February 2016. Following this, Japan has already moved to join the US–India exercise Malabar and Australia is reportedly interested in participating in the exercise later this year.
Another example is the expansion of the membership of military exercises such as Corp North, which originally began as a bilateral military exercise between Japan and the United States in 1978. In 2012 Corp North became a trilateral with Australia and now it has expanded to include other regional powers, such as South Korea, New Zealand and the Philippines, in the areas of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. There has also been a growing momentum for cooperation between coast guard agencies between the United States, Japan, Australia and other regional partners, which will likely realise more multi-layered security cooperation.
Japan and Australia have independently and jointly enhanced their defence engagement with Southeast Asia. And, while it is unlikely that more direct engagement — like US–Japan–Australia joint patrolling activities — will soon be realised, such activities are still crucial to showing solidarity with the US-led FON operations and to secure America’s military commitment to the region.
But such cooperation is not risk-free. While defence engagement will enhance the maritime capabilities of some countries and amend the asymmetric power balance in the region, it may also increase political disagreement between maritime and continental Southeast Asian countries regarding regional security matters. Japan and Australia must be careful to balance expanding their bilateral defence engagements in maritime Southeast Asia with improving cooperation in more inclusive regional multilateral security institutions. To do so, more communication and coordination between Japan, Australia and other regional powers is required.
Tomohiko Satake is a Senior Research Fellow at National Institute of Defence Studies, Tokyo. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of NIDS or the Ministry of Defence, Japan.