Tokyo is taking an increasingly determined stance in relation to Beijing’s proactive strategy in Asia’s seaways. Japan’s prime focus is upon the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands in the East China Sea, over which sovereignty is claimed by China, Japan and Taiwan. Japan Coast Guard (JCG) patrol ships and Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) warships, soon to be augmented by uncrewed aerial vehicles, are increasingly active around the Senkakus, in response to operations by Chinese warships and China Coast Guard vessels.
The Japanese Constitution still restricts, to an extent, the international operations of the country’ maritime forces, but this does not mean that Tokyo’s concerns are confined to the Senkakus. The Japanese are providing proxy support for opposition to Chinese claims to most of the South China Sea (SCS), and to the islets therein, by nations contiguous to the sea.
Support for Vietnam
The already large, and rapidly expanding, Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG) is to receive six helicopter-capable patrol ships from Japan, which, according to regional reports, will be based on the JCG’s Aso-class. The vessels will be paid for by means of a forty-year loan to Vietnam by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The vessels will be built in Japan by Mitsui, and are all scheduled to be delivered by October 2025.
The Aso-class ships displace 1,000 tonnes, and are capable of more than 30 knots. They feature a radar-directed 40-millimetre cannon.
These will not be the first vessels to be supplied to the VCG by Japan. Since 2015 Tokyo has quietly transferred a fishery protection vessel and five large former tuna fishing boats to Vietnam, for use as patrol ships.
Two more large OPVs for the Philippines
Japan is to build two 1,700-tonne patrol ships, to be paid for by JICA, and based on the Kunigami-class of the JCG, for the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG). The two vessels are being constructed by Mitsubishi Shipbuilding in Shimonoseki, and are due to be delivered to the PCG by the end of 2022.
These long range, high-endurance vessels will feature a helicopter flight deck and a hangar, and working together with the service’s recently commissioned, French-built OPV, should raise significantly the profile of the PCG in the SCS.
The PCG has already received 10 new-build, 44-metre patrol ships of the Parola-class, constructed in, and mainly paid for by, Japan. Tokyo has also provided the service with a number of small craft.
Aid for other partners in South-East Asia
In 2015, Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur entered into a formal strategic partnership, with a major focus on regional maritime security. As a result two former JCG vessels have been supplied to the Malaysia Coast Guard: the 1,100-tonne Arau and the 2,000-tonne Pekan.
While Indonesia does not lay claim to any of the SCS, tensions between Beijing and Jakarta over fishing rights around the Natuna Islands, which border the sea, are rising. The past two years have seen confrontations between Indonesian and Chinese warships and fishing vessels, and China maintains an increasingly aggressive presence around the islands.
As part of his plan to balance the competing regional influences of Washington and Beijing, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe initiated the Japan-Indonesia Maritime Forum, with the aim of enhancing cooperation between the two nations on maritime security. Reports that Japan is to supply paramilitary vessels to Indonesia have been circulating for some time, and, earlier this year, it was confirmed that the 760-tonne fishery protection vessel Hakerei Maru is to be handed over to Indonesia in 2021. Indonesian crew members are currently being trained in Japan.
Japanese law does now permit the export of military-rated equipment, and Indonesia seems set to be the first post-World War II recipient of a Japanese-built warship.
Talks between Japanese and Indonesian officials over the supply of warships to the large, but partly obsolescent, Indonesian Navy, continue. Japanese sources very recently identified a new type of Japanese-designed and built stealth warship, namely the heavily-armed, helicopter-capable, 5,600-tonne 30FFM-class frigate as being the likely vessel of choice.
Maritime security expert and columnist, Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police, Assistant Secretary for Security in the British Hong Kong Government Security Branch, and Intelligence Analyst in the UK Ministry of Defence. As an independent defence and security analyst he has had some 1,500 articles on maritime security, and geopolitical topics, published in a range of international journals and newspapers. He is an Associate Fellow of the Nautical Institute, and a past Vice-Chairman of the Institute’s Hong Kong branch.