South China Sea Perspectives: Japan

H. D. P. Envall


Envall, HDP (2022) “South China Sea Perspectives: Japan,” Parliamentary Library Research Paper, Parliament of Australia, 7 October.


Japan is not a direct party to any of the disputes in the South China Sea. It does not have territorial claims in the area. Nor does it have any claim to an exclusive economic zone. Nonetheless, Japan does have vital interests in the area. As Yoichiro Sato, a Japanese defence expert at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, aptly explains, Japan is ‘an important stakeholder’ in the South China Sea.1 This paper examines Japan’s perspective on the South China Sea across three dimensions. Firstly, it asks why the South China Sea is important to Japanese national interests. It then lays out Japan’s strategic objectives in the area. Finally, it considers the risks and uncertainties Japan faces in pursuing these objectives. While Japan is a significant stakeholder, the South China Sea disputes highlight Japan’s limitations, including self-imposed policy constraints and capability gaps, as well as the geopolitical and geoeconomic vulnerabilities it faces in the Indo-Pacific more widely.

Why is the South China Sea Important to Japan?

Japan’s ‘economic activity and the survival of its people’, as then Rear Admiral Takei Tomohisa noted in 2008, ‘depend on unimpeded economic activity via sea-lanes of communication.’2 Indeed, Japan’s first interest in the South China Seas is to ensure that international trade passes smoothly through the region. Approximately 80% of Japan’s energy imports travel through the South China Sea and much of its trade as well.3 In 2019, Japan’s trade with just the European Union (including the UK) and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) amounted to over US$363 billion or around 25% of Japan’s total trade.4

Japan also has strategic interests in the South China Sea. Japanese governments worry about China’s growing assertiveness in the East China Sea in relation to the two countries’ territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.5 China’s ‘historical claims’ in both disputes; its rejection of the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in its territorial dispute with the Philippines; its attempts to isolate and ‘pick off’ individual claimants in the South China Sea; its militarisation of the South China Sea; and its deployment of ‘grey zone’ operations, are all viewed from Japan’s perspective as part of a single strategy by China intended to weaken the territorial claims and control of other states in the area and establish its own control.6 Japan also faces similar grey zone tactics—attempts at coercion that fall just below what is considered an ‘armed attack’—in the East China Sea.7

China’s approach in the South China Sea, according to the Japanese government, is about ‘moving forward with militarization, as well as expanding and intensifying its activities in the maritime and aerial domains, thereby continuing unilateral attempts to change the status quo by coercion to create a fait accompli.’8 Japan has been consistent in this position for some time. In 2012, former prime minister Abe Shinzō argued that, ‘increasingly, the South China Sea seems set to become a “Lake Beijing”.’9 In November 2021, current Prime Minister Kishida Fumio met with Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh to issue a joint statement expressing ‘concerns’ about the South China Sea and ‘unilateral attempts’ to shift the status quo and raise tensions in the area.10

Beijing’s aggressive conduct in the South China Sea also increases Japan’s unease about China’s wider military and economic rise. Three areas of concern stand out in particular from Tokyo’s viewpoint. First, China’s military modernisation means that it now enjoys a substantial quantitative military advantage over Japan in the region, even as Japan’s forces maintain a qualitative edge in some areas. In terms of Asian defence spending in 2020, China spent US$193 billion, which amounted to 42% of the region’s total. By comparison, Japan spent US$49.7 billion or around 11% of the total (and 26% of China’s spending).11 With doubts now raised over America’s military superiority in the western Pacific, Japan is also faced with the challenge of how to support American power just as the possibility of a major power conflict, such as over Taiwan, is growing.12

Second, China is also contending with the US and Japan for influence in the economic realm. China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy in 2010 and has since extended its economic influence across the region as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), often in competition with Japan.13 This geo-economic competition has been especially pronounced in infrastructure investment. Through the BRI and the closely linked Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China has sought to develop a range of projects around Southeast Asia, including high-speed rail in Indonesia, transport infrastructure in Thailand and Vietnam, industrial parks and special economic zones in Malaysia and Cambodia.14

Third, in rejecting UNCLOS and engaging in a range of ‘grey zone’ activities in the South China Sea, especially the use of maritime militias, China is disregarding international law and eroding international norms, such as those around the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes.15 Instead, it is establishing a new great power politics for the region, as captured by then Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi’s message to ASEAN in 2010 that ‘China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.’16 Japan’s response has been to repeatedly express its support for a rules-based order, especially on maritime matters, across multiple international forums.17 Some Japanese analysts go further, arguing for a policy of responding to Chinese unilateralism with actions designed to uphold international law, such as Freedom of Navigation Operations or FONOPs.18 From Japan’s perspective, then, the capacity of the region to contest China’s actions in the South China Sea—actions which are viewed by Japan as ‘incompatible with the existing order of international law’—has become something of a litmus test for whether such an order can be sustained regionally and globally.19

What are Japan’s Strategic Objectives?

How did Japan arrive at its Indo-Pacific vision? The outline, if not the terminology, of Japan’s Given these national interests, in terms of strategic goals, Japan is unsurprisingly focused on maintaining the established regional order, achieving a stable balance of power, and ensuring Japan’s access to the region’s maritime commons. ‘Maritime realism’ or ‘regional realism’ are useful terms to describe this regional, maritime focus.20 In fact, Japan has long been clear in putting forward ‘the maintenance and protection of international order based on rules and universal values’ as key aims.21

Gradually, these ideas have been incorporated into a strategy for the region—what Japan now refers to as its vision for a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP)22. As articulated by Abe, FOIP links together the Pacific and Indian Oceans through ‘the confluence of the two seas’ (futatsu no umi no majiwari).23 In FOIP, Japan is attempting both to define a new region and to shape its norms and rules. For Japan, the fate of this new region would ‘not be determined by one or even two powers,’ while the norms and rules of the region would broadly follow those established under Pax-Americana.24 Such norm entrepreneurship is a central feature of FOIP, which gives expression to these goals of maintaining international order, building prosperity, and protecting regional peace and stability.25 The South China Sea is a core domain within FOIP’s ‘vast expanse of sea,’ and Japan aims to maintain this sea as a ‘free body of water,’ that is, ‘a public good that brings peace and prosperity to all people without discrimination into the future.’26

Japan is also pursuing strategic goals tied to the balance of power in the region. First, while not attempting to block China’s rise, Japan is nevertheless seeking to guard against China coming to dominate the region.27 Notably, Tokyo avoids identifying Beijing as a strategic competitor. Indeed, it explains that ‘no country is excluded from partnership’ in FOIP.28 Yet the logic of FOIP means that Japan, whilst cooperative if China follows the rules-based order, can adopt a more critical posture if Beijing shifts to great-power coercion.29 Such an approach gives Japan more flexibility when dealing with Southeast Asian fears of being forced to choose between China on the one hand and Japan, the US, and partners on the other.30

To counter Chinese unilateralism in the South China Sea, Japan has sought to build up the resiliency of claimants in the dispute through a program of regional capacity-building. In part, the program assists other nations in resisting Chinese grey-zone activities in the South China Sea by helping develop their maritime law-enforcement capabilities.31 It also goes beyond direct security cooperation, however. In response to China’s wider geo-economic challenge, Japan is attempting a denial strategy aimed at preventing China from establishing a clear sphere of influence in the area. Japanese investment in the region is intended to develop economic ‘connectivity’ through ‘quality infrastructure investment.’ By offering investment alternatives to China’s BRI, Japan is providing the region with leverage to resist Chinese economic and strategic influence.32 In 2015, Japan committed to invest US$110 billion in infrastructure projects in Asia and followed this in 2016 with a further US$200 billion around the world, in direction competition with the BRI.33

Second, Tokyo is endeavoring to ensure that the US remains engaged, as a security guarantor for Japan and as a key underwriter of regional stability. As British academic Chris Hughes argues, America remains the ‘only power capable of facing down China’s use of force’ in the region and the only power able to protect the status quo in the South China Sea.34 Buttressing US power has been a central goal of Japanese strategy since the alliance underwent a period of some uncertainty in 2009–10.35 Japan is ‘all too aware’ of America’s ‘relative decline’ and the consequent need to support the US. It has done so by developing a more proactive alliance role and by adopting a larger regional diplomatic presence.36 The Abe administration reinterpreted Article 9 of the Constitution—the famous ‘peace clause’—to allow itself the right to exercise collective self-defence, that is, to come to the defence of an ally or partner (albeit within restrictions). Supporting the US militarily in a potential South China Sea conflict would likely be allowable now under Japanese law.37 When the Obama administration adopted its ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ to Asia, Abe was arguably more pro-‘pivot’ than the president. With FOIP, he then persuaded the Trump administration to produce its own Indo-Pacific strategy.38

Japan has sought to meet the challenge of keeping the US in the region in three ways. First, at the bilateral level, it has worked closely with the US to deepen overall alliance cooperation and interoperability.39 It has also engaged other US allies and partners, including Australia, as illustrated by the recent signing of the Reciprocal Access Agreement by Kishida and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.40 Second, at the minilateral level, it has actively ‘networked’ US power by adopting a more central position interlinking various US-influenced or US-led strategic partnerships or groupings.41 The most notable of these has been the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or ‘Quad,’ bringing together Japan, India, Australia, and the US.42 The Quad’s first in-person leaders’ summit was held in September 2021, with subsequent meetings held through 2022, including a second in-person leaders’ summit in Tokyo in May.43 Finally, at the multilateral level, Japan has pursued what US-based academic Saori Katada calls a ‘state-led liberal strategy.’44 This geo-economic strategy entails an emphasis on growing regionalism, the formalisation of high-quality rules and institutions to structure economic interactions within this region, and an economic vision for the region that promotes markets.45 Japan has led the way on establishing institutions such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership following America’s withdrawal from the original Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Japan’s aim, again, has been to support the US-led international economic order in the region as a way of resisting Chinese geo-economic influence.46

What are the Risks and Uncertainties for Japan?

Still, Japan’s overall strategic situation is highly uncertain.47 Shifts in the regional balance of power, according to the Japanese Government’s 2020 Defense White Paper, ‘are accelerating and becoming more complex … [while] uncertainty over the existing order is increasing.’48 Japan is threatened directly by North Korea with its missile and nuclear programs.49 China, as highlighted earlier, represents both an immediate security threat due to the two countries dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and a broader geopolitical and geo-economic challenge.50 Japan also faces ongoing domestic constraints on its security role, such as legal limitations on how its military can operate, as well as demographic and economic challenges.51 On the South China Sea, therefore, Japan’s challenge is to manage this issue while also addressing these many other concerns.

Because only the US can maintain the balance of power across Asia and in the South China Sea, Japan is inevitably hostage to America’s intentions and conduct. Although the South China Sea has become a major focus of America’s rivalry with China, it has now become one amongst many. Yet the South China Sea represents a key testing ground for the US if it is to maintain effective forward deployment into the western Pacific.52 The risk and uncertainty for Japan in this regard stems from the fact that America has not always followed a clear policy on the disputes in the South China Sea or in challenging Chinese assertiveness. Under the Trump presidency, but also during the Obama presidency, there have been ongoing doubts as to America’s commitment to countering Chinese aggression, notably its militarisation of the Sea since the late 2000s. This stands in contrast to America’s repeated commitments to defend the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.53 When then Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide met with President Joe Biden in April 2021, unsurprisingly the joint statement emphasized America’s position on issues of key concern to Japan—its opposition to attempts to unilaterally change in the status quo in the East China Sea and its objection to ‘China’s unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea.’54

Japan also faces uncertainty because it cannot act unilaterally in the South China Sea but must cooperate with others. Any cooperation is complicated, however, by regional actors’ diverging interests. There are contrasting views within ASEAN on the South China Sea, with some members, notably those engaged in territorial disputes, tending toward a harder line on China. Others are more concerned to protect their growing economic political relationships with China.55 Japan, therefore, faces an ever-present risk with its regional diplomacy that it might alienate as many countries as it befriends. It has found that aligning its own FOIP vision with ASEAN’s Indo-Pacific Outlook has required some finessing. The Japanese government initially dropped reference to FOIP as a ‘strategy’ in response to ASEAN concerns and, more recently, has started referring to a ‘peaceful and prosperous,’ rather than ‘free and open,’ Indo-Pacific for similar reasons.56

The last risk for Japan is that it must balance China’s influence without unduly antagonising Beijing. Japan’s economy may depend on free shipping lanes through the Indo-Pacific, but Japanese prosperity also remains heavily dependent on the Chinese economy. In 2019, 21.3% of Japanese trade was with China.57 Yet Japan has been seeking to diversify its economic relationships. Tokyo has sought to reduce the country’s geo-economic vulnerability by encouraging Japanese firms to move supply chains away from China.58 Accordingly, Japan’s foreign direct investment (FDI) into China has reduced substantially since 2012 as a proportion of its total outward FDI, declining from a high of 11% in 2012 to 4.7% in 2019.59 In seeking to mitigate the risks of its China relationship, Japan can be said to rely on hedging with ‘elements of economic pragmatism, binding-engagement, dominance-denial and indirect balancing.’60 Tokyo is pragmatic when it comes to recognising the importance of the economic relationship but seeks to balance this with economic diversification policies, rules promotion, and institutional innovation.61


Japan is not a direct participant in any South China Sea disputes. Yet, as this paper shows, the South China Sea is of major strategic significance to Japan, not only in military terms but also with respect to the country’s diplomacy and economic security. So, whilst not an immediate player in the dispute, Tokyo is more than a disinterested observer. The idea of Japan as a South China Sea ‘stakeholder,’ therefore, does well in capturing the multidimensional nature of Japan’s interests in the area. It also suggests that Tokyo has long dispensed with the kind of mercantilist, low-key approach that characterised much of its diplomacy during the Cold War.62 Instead, Japan now aspires to a much more active regional role, one that is outside the shadow of America and intended to more clearly to shape the region and events in the South China Sea. This is the basic aim of Japan’s vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

At the same time, the South China Sea issue also highlights Japan’s strategic vulnerabilities and the precariousness of its position as a major regional player—its problematic relationship with China, complex ties to Southeast Asia, and heavy dependence on the US. In particular, were the US forced at some point to concede the South China Sea to China, this would seriously undermine Japan’s capacity to continue with a balancing or hedging strategy toward Beijing, at least as currently envisaged. Japan would then face the prospect of greater regional isolation and more serious strategic choices: to fall back to an accommodation strategy regarding China or to shift to a more hard-edged deterrence strategy based on a rapid military build-up and potential nuclearisation.63 To avoid this, Japan’s main goal in the South China Sea, as with the Indo-Pacific more widely, remains not so much ‘to keep China out’ but to ‘keep the United States in.’64

* Dr Envall is a guest contributor to the Parliamentary Library. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Parliamentary Library.

Notes and References

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  2. Takei Tomohisa, ‘Kaiyō Shinkindai ni okeru Kijōjieitai’ [The JMSDF in the New Maritime Era], Hatō [Wave] 11, 2008, 2-29, 6; A Patalano, ‘Japan as a Maritime Power: Deterrence, Diplomacy, and Maritime Security’, in M McCarthy, eds, Routledge Handbook of Japanese Foreign Policy, Routledge, London, 2018, pp. 155-172, 160.
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  53. T Huxley and B Schreer, ‘Trump’s Missing Asia Strategy’, Survival 59(3), 2017, 81–89; W Tow and H. D. P. Envall, ‘The U.S. and Implementing Multilateral Security in the Asia-Pacific: Can Convergent Security Work?’, IFANS Review 19(2), 2011, 49–72, at 60–61; Mizuho Aoki, ‘Obama Assures Abe on Sekakus’, Japan Times, 24 April 2014.
  54. White House, ‘U.S.- Japan Joint Leaders’ Statement: ‘U.S.–Japan Global Partnership for a New Era’’, Joint leaders’ statement, 16 April 2021.
  55. A Ba, ‘The South China Sea: Primary Contradictions in China-Southeast Asia Relations,’ in I Storey and Lin Cheng-yi, eds, The South China Sea Dispute: Navigating Diplomatic and Strategic Tensions, ISEA Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, 2016, 104–33, 116–17.
  56. Hughes, et al., ‘Japan’s Grand Strategy’, op. cit., 132–33, 143. Suga Yoshihide, ‘ASEAN Kanren Shunō Kaigi nado ni tsuite no Kaiken’, [Press Conference on ASEAN-related Summit Meetings], Shushō Kantei [Prime Minister’s Office of Japan], speech, 14 November 2020.
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To cite this paper:

Envall, HDP (2022) “South China Sea Perspectives: Japan,” Parliamentary Library Research Paper, Parliament of Australia, 7 October.