SINGAPORE — Japan is continuing to enhance its security presence in Asia and the western Pacific, as the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to continue defense posture reforms and counter China’s military activities in the region.

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, or JMSDF, continues to send its ships on cruises and port visits throughout the region, and it conducts bilateral and multilateral exercises with allies and partners. The force also is continuing efforts to bolster the capabilities of Asia’s weaker forces to safeguard their respective maritime interests.

The latter includes the donation of surplus equipment such as patrol boats, maritime surveillance aircraft and spare helicopter parts to the Philippines, as well as similar donations of patrol boats to Vietnam. It also conducts training for crews from recipient nations. Additionally, it has offered retired Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion anti-submarine aircraft to Malaysia, although the country is unlikely to take up that offer.

Collin Koh, a maritime security research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, told Defense News that these moves are part of Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.” He noted that Japan’s capacity-building assistance program focuses on Southeast and South Asian partners on the premise that when these nations improve their maritime security capabilities, Japan can better safeguard its own extensive regional interests, including investments, the safety of sea lanes vital to Japan’s energy security, and a strategic counterbalance to an emerging China.

Koh hastened to add that the last point has not been explicitly stated in official Japanese discourse, although based on the existing observations so far this would be one of the reasons behind Japan’s westward gaze and outreach.

A Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force P-3C Orion arrives at a Royal Australian Air Force base. (Rob Griffith/AFP via Getty Images)
A Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force P-3C Orion arrives at a Royal Australian Air Force base. (Rob Griffith/AFP via Getty Images)

He also went into more detail regarding equipment donations, explaining that these were carried out under parallel outreach efforts by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, primarily through the Japan International Cooperation Agency and Japanese Coast Guard under its Overseas Development Assistance policies. Further action was taken by the Ministry of Defense through its Vientiane Vision, a guiding principle for Japan’s defense cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations announced in November 2016.

The former covers a much wider range of capacity building, broadly defined, to include not only the provision of maritime domain awareness sensors and patrol assets for civilian maritime agencies, but also other forms of civilian training, policy advisories and consultancy services, while the latter covers other niche areas such as promoting joint training and exercises, observation, and ship-rider programs that are usually tailored to not only maritime security but also humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts.

Due to Japan’s constitutional constraints, which restrict the type of equipment that can be donated, the nascent equipment transfers by Japan’s Defense Ministry are much more limited in nature. These have so far been restricted to the unarmed TC-90 maritime surveillance aircraft to the Philippines, while the proposed transfer of P-3s to Malaysia would have seen the removal of most of the onboard equipment, although the Abe government is seeking to relax those constraints as part of wider reforms regarding the role of Japan’s self-defense forces.

Despite these restrictions, Koh described the two-pronged approach to Japan’s capacity building program as “holistic and comprehensive.”

“They do have positive impact on transferring know-how and skill sets to the Southeast Asian militaries and maritime law enforcement agencies, especially in terms of boosting maritime domain awareness capacity,” he said.

A more muscular presence

The increasingly visible presence of Japanese warships in the region continued this year when in early May, the JMSDF helicopter destroyer Izumo and the destroyer Murasame started a two-month cruise. This is the Izumo’s second visit to the region following its first such voyage in 2017.

Izumo’s sister ship, Kaga, made a similar visit to the region last year, and in contrast to the Izumo’s first voyage to the region, the response to this year’s voyage has been relatively muted, suggesting that such activity is becoming the new norm. Still, some Asian nations, most notably China and South Korea, continue to view Japan’s military presence with suspicion — a lingering side effect from Japan’s wartime aggression and occupation of Asia.

This latest cruise has taken the ships to ports such as Subic Bay in the Philippines and Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, and also to the Indian Ocean, where they participated in multilateral exercises with Australian and U.S. navies, as well as a French aircraft carrier strike group in the west of the Indonesian island of Sumatra in late May.

This followed a similar exercise, this time with the Indian, Philippine and U.S. navies in the South China Sea earlier in May.

Koh is closely watching the Japanese ship deployments as well as Abe’s efforts to revise Japan’s constitution to allow Japanese forces to play a more active role abroad. Koh believes that if Abe is successful, the JMSDF will likely undertake more active deployments, perhaps even more regular voyages to the region and more robust arms transfers to regional countries.

This could see the Izumo or Kaga visiting the region in the future with fighter jets aboard. Although the Izumo and its sister ship Kaga have a primarily anti-submarine role and can only carry helicopters on their flight decks, plans are in the works to modify the ships so they can carry the Lockheed Martin F-35B short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing variant, which Japan is acquiring.

Such a deployment will almost certain raise China’s ire. The country, which suffered from imperial Japan’s military activites before and during World War II, has repeatedly criticized what it sees as Japan’s increasing militarization. It is locked in a dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which China calls the Diaoyu Islands. And Beijing remains wary of Tokyo acting as a regional counterweight to the former’s increasing economic, political and military clout.

Koh told Defense News that China is unlikely to see Japan’s increasing presence in the South China Sea as a welcome move, given that Beijing previously criticizing Japan for what it sees as direct interference in South China Sea disputes by building up the maritime security capacity of China’s rival claimants.

He added that as Japan works alongside other powers such as India and the U.S. to form a united front against Chinese influence in the region, Beijing is likely to specifically take issue with their deployed warships and multilateral naval exercises.