As an island nation, the sea defines Japanese identity. For centuries, the sea separated those who lived on the main four islands from those who lived in the thousands of smaller islands that make up the archipelago. The history of how Edo (or modern-day Tokyo) reached out to incorporate all these islands provides a fascinating glimpse into how Japan became a modern nation—Japan’s modernisation.
Pre-modern Japan may have isolated itself from the outside world, but to the south, the Ryukyu kingdom, a peaceful nation of traders and navigators, traversed Asia’s waters in search of resources. Lords in Satsuma and Choshu saw the profits to be had in Ryukyu trade and, within decades, the new Meiji state had colonised what is today Okinawa prefecture. Similarly to the north, Japanese traders and fishermen crossed the frigid seas from Hokkaido to its outer islands to lay claim on what the Japanese today call the Northern Territories, four islands rich in fisheries and natural resources—islands which, after repeated wars, are now occupied by Russia.
For much of Japan’s modern history, the sea has protected the Japanese from their neighbours. Isolationist Edo wanted nothing to do with outsiders, but a few intrepid Japanese left their country to sail the seas and became memorable in the story of Japan’s rise to power. Only the Western naval nations had the ability to burst Edo’s fiction of impermeability, and the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1853 with his “black ships” sent the feudal government into a tailspin that ultimately changed the trajectory of modern Japanese history. A shipwrecked young man, picked up and educated by the captain of an American ship, facilitated the diplomacy that led to the commercial treaty sought by Perry.
Japan’s industrialisation later led it to compete with the Western navies that populated East Asia’s waters, and the defeat of Russia in what must be seen as one of the most formidable naval battles off the Liaodong peninsula earned the Imperial Japanese Navy new acclaim. The victory came at a terrible price in terms of the human toll it took on Japan’s newly conscripted military. But the Imperial Navy would go on to be one of Great Britain’s closest allies in Asia and sit at the table in the multinational disarmament deliberations that punctuated Western diplomacy in the 1920s as leaders desperately sought to avoid a second world war. The failure of that diplomatic effort at keeping the peace in Europe and between the great powers in Asia led to the tumultuous decade that followed. Japan’s maritime strength grew, and its decision to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor revealed how confident leaders in Tokyo had become about their ability to dominate the seas.
The end of World War II, with the defeat of Imperial Japan, changed Japan’s approach to its maritime interests. Its post-war military, the Self Defence Force, draws on Japan’s historic maritime legacy for naval expertise, but in the service of an “exclusively defensive” mission. Likewise, the Japan Coast Guard, housed in the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, remains conscientiously fixed on its domestic law enforcement mission, even as other nation’s vessels press in on their operations. Their job is considerable: Japan’s territorial sea comprises nearly 4,30,000 sq km, larger than its land area (around 3,80,000 sq km). The combined area of Japan’s territorial sea and its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is twelve times the area of Japan’s islands.
Japan’s maritime interests, however, extend far beyond its own waters. The world’s oceans are both an indispensable route for its imports and exports as well as a source of vital natural resources. Japan’s approach to the sea has gone through several transitions of late. Tokyo ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1996, and now claims an EEZ of approximately 4,470,000 sq km. China also ratified the UNCLOS that year, but took a rather different approach to defining its own EEZ. China argues that its continental shelf entitles it to an extended EEZ of 360 nautical miles, while Japan argues that a median line, drawn from the baselines of each coast, should split the sea between them. With only 360 nautical miles between them across the East China Sea, Japan and China must negotiate their differences, but are yet to agree on a shared maritime boundary.
Japan-China Maritime Tensions
There are two maritime challenges for Japan as it looks at a rising China. First, and most striking, is Chinese behaviour in the East and South China Seas. Tokyo’s collision with Beijing over the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands for the Chinese) drew headlines, first in 2010, when a Chinese fishing trawler captain rammed two Japan Coast Guard vessels, and again in 2012, when the Chinese deployed their own maritime law enforcement vessels to patrol the disputed islands. Domestic politics became entangled in a tit-for-tat demonstration of nationalist sentiments as politicians claimed the mantle of defending the nation’s honour.
In the midst of this diplomatic furore, the two militaries that had largely given each other a wide berth across the East China Sea began to inch closer to a direct interaction. This military standoff has intensified ever since. Aircraft began to challenge the quiet airspace above these isolated islands, prompting increasing scrambles and deeper forays towards each other’s coastlines. A Chinese frigate locked its fire control on a Japanese vessel. China declared an Air Defence Identification Zone in November 2013 that overlapped with Japan’s, and Japan refused to recognise it. Navies and maritime law enforcement both converge around the islands, ready for any future incident between fishermen or other civilians to test their capacity to claim jurisdiction. Both have designated coast guard units for the explicit defence of the waters around the Senkaku Islands. This August, as the fishing season opened, more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels converged there, accompanied by over 15 Chinese Coast Guard and other patrol ships. The Japan-China territorial dispute has now merged with a growing military contest over a maritime space critical to both Tokyo and Beijing.
With the rising tensions over China’s island-building in the South China Sea, activities in both of these near seas have worsened the mood between Tokyo and Beijing. Beijing has taken issue with Japan’s policy on the South China Sea. Japan’s Self Defence Force also saw the Chinese build-up as a precursor to asserting control over the South China Sea in a way that could harm Japan’s commercial interests. When interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, joint chief of staff Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano noted that the island-building could impinge upon Freedom of Navigation and if need be, Japan might have to increase its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) activities there. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida was an outspoken advocate of the UNCLOS tribunal, arguing that these island disputes in Asia must be settled peacefully by international law. Yet Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi saw Japan’s role in the UNCLOS tribunal as less than altruistic, arguing that a Japanese official had prejudiced the process through his role in selecting the judges for the Philippine arbitration.
Diplomatic relations have improved somewhat since the heightened tensions of 2012, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who returned to office in December that year, has met Chinese President Xi Jinping a number of times. But the fallout of the island clash was two years of silence between the leaders of Asia’s largest powers. China’s political transition to President Xi’s leadership made diplomacy difficult. Abe worked instead on shoring up Tokyo’s alliance with Washington. Japan’s prime minister also visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine in December 2013, heartening those on the Right in Japan who felt compromise with Beijing had harmed national interests. This, of course, raised shrill protests from Beijing (as well as from Seoul and, for the first time, a rebuke by Washington).
When Xi hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Beijing in November 2014, however, the two leaders could hardly avoid a conversation. In a carefully worded statement preceding the meeting, Xi and Abe agreed on four ways to put their protracted dispute behind them. The most important perhaps was their recognition that the increasing risk of conflict in the East China Sea was in neither country’s interest. A bilateral maritime risk reduction dialogue began the following spring.
Both China and Japan lay claim to these islands
Japan-China tensions have been reduced for now, but the underlying impact of Asia’s geostrategic shift on Japan has not lessened. This impact has been felt most conspicuously in the oceans that surround Japan.
The US and Japan in Maritime Asia
As one of Asia’s prominent maritime powers, Japan has found a strong partner in the US Navy. The US and Japanese navies have long worked closely to patrol and protect the sea lanes from East Asia to the Middle East. Part of the US Seventh Fleet is home-ported in Japanese ports, and the two navies continue to build their experience in operating together. These forces work not only in defence cooperation, but also in providing humanitarian and disaster relief across the Pacific. In 2011, when the Great East Japan earthquake struck and the tremendous tsunami ravaged Japan’s northeastern region, US naval ships provided the platform for the Japanese Self Defence Force’s relief efforts by sea to northern Japan.
The US and Japan also cooperate with other allies in the region. Japan and Australia now have a close security partnership, working with the US in the Western Pacific, and on their own in ISR and maritime collaboration. The Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force also joined bilateral Balikatan exercises between the US and the Philippines last year, with the prospect of joining fully in trilateral maritime exercises later. Likewise, India and Japan have increased their strategic consultations, and the US-India Malabar exercises will now include Japan, again moving from bilateral to trilateral maritime cooperation. Even the UK has begun to join in the maritime cooperation in Asia.
Japan has also built close maritime cooperation with its Southeast Asian neighbours. The coastal states of Southeast Asia look to Japan for assistance in building their own maritime capacities. Japanese assistance to the Philippines and Vietnam includes the provision of coast guard vessels, but also, increasingly, training in a variety of maritime missions. The Philippines in particular, as an archipelagic nation, has sought Japanese expertise and training—for both maritime defence as well as humanitarian and disaster relief assistance.
This growing web of maritime collaboration between Japan and others in Asia offers a strong foundation for regional stability. It also strengthens capacities for the smaller coastal nations in Asia to observe and respond to the growing presence of Chinese ships in the EEZ and, at times, the territorial waters. New collective initiatives involving the US, Japan, India, Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states to develop sophisticated technological tools for enhanced maritime domain awareness will be vital to the region’s maritime stability.
The Road Ahead
Japan continues to build its maritime power within a framework of security cooperation with the US. The recent US presidential election, however, has raised some concerns about whether this premise for Japanese strategic planning will hold. President-elect Donald Trump provoked deep anxieties in Tokyo with his references to US allies in Asia going it alone and his demand for greater reciprocity in the costs and obligations of these alliances.
The tsar’s Baltic fleet undertook a 20,000 mile voyage before it reached the Far East and was intercepted by Japanese Admiral Heihachiro Togo’s fleet between Japan and Korea, handing Asians their first meaningful victory over a imperial European power. The battle electrified Asia but also led to Taiwan and Korea’s annexation by imperial Japan.
Tokyo has little interest in going it alone or in the idea suggested by Trump of developing nuclear weapons. But it is likely that the Abe cabinet will increase Japanese defence spending and push his country further in accepting a relaxation of the restraints that have long governed the use of force by the Self Defence Force. His security reforms have already positioned Japan to expand its military capabilities and, for the first time in its history, sell weapons to its security partners.
As 2016 draws to a close, the Abe cabinet has just approved a 5.1 trillion yen defence budget (US$43.6 billion), its largest ever, and increased its Coast Guard spending by 12 per cent, adding up to an 16 per cent increase since 2010. The seas surrounding Japan have become far more contested, despite efforts by Tokyo’s neighbour to the south, the Philippines, to invite arbitration by an international tribunal. China’s increasing maritime capabilities are clearly a concern, but even more alarming to Tokyo is Beijing’s willingness to use those capabilities to push against the maritime boundaries and assert claims over islands in disputes in ways that suggest China may have a far greater appetite for risk in Asia’s near seas.
A Japanese P-3C patrol aircraft over Senkaku
So what does this growing defence and Coast Guard spending mean for Japan? Not as much as you might think. In absolute terms, Japan’s defence spending is far below China, suggesting that, in the coming five or ten years, Chinese maritime capability could impressively outstrip Japan’s impressive naval fleet. The Self Defence Force, however, benefits from its cooperation with the US military, and from a long-standing practice of US transfers of top-notch military equipment. Japan’s own shipbuilding capacity is nothing to sneeze at, nor is its increasingly sophisticated onboard technologies. But a massive and sudden increase in military spending is unlikely.
Rather, Abe is likely to accelerate the diversification of Japan’s maritime partners. India, Australia and the Southeast Asian nations could offer stronger linkages as a way of tempering any US shifts in the region. It may now be Japan’s turn to want to build the US into regional cooperation frameworks, to prevent any sudden change in direction or commitment to maritime stability in Asia. And just in case the unthinkable happens, and the US retreats from its role as maritime stabiliser in Asia, Tokyo will need to be prepared to step in to persuade others of the need for a coalition of maritime powers that will ensure open seas and freedom of navigation for Asia.
(The writer is a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.)