Japan’s proactive approach to maritime security: The case of supporting the Philippines during the PCA arbitration

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Thinking Beyond Politics
By Renato Cruz De Castro

In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague announced its long-awaited ruling on the protracted maritime dispute between the Philippines and China. The PCA ruled in favor of the Philippines in 14 of its 15 claims against China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea. The court declared that China’s claims — defined by the nine-dash line — violate international law. The tribunal concluded that whatever historic rights China had to the resources in the waters of the South China Sea were extinguished when it ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).

It also noted that, although Chinese navigators and fishermen, as well as those of other states, had traditionally used the land features in the South China Sea, there was no historical evidence that China had exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources. The tribunal asserted that historical navigation and fishing by Chinese navigators involved the exercise of high seas freedom, rather than a historic right. The PCA ruling was a major victory for the Philippines.

The Philippines’ filing against China could be traced to the three-month long standoff between a lone Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessel and Chinese civilian ships off Scarborough Shoal in 2012. In mid-June 2012, after the Philippines withdrew its lone vessel, China took control over Scarborough. Chinese Maritime Surveillance (CMS) personnel constructed a chain barrier across the mouth of the shoal to block Philippine access to it. China also deployed these vessels to protect Chinese fishing boats operating deep into the Philippines’ EEZ.

In January 2013, the Philippines directly confronted the Chinese approach during the Scarborough Shoal impasse by filing a statement of claim against China in the PCA at The Hague. As expected, China did not participate in the proceedings, citing its policy of resolving disputes on territorial and maritime rights only through direct consultation and negotiation with the countries involved.


Japan, however, sent representatives to the hearing. Throughout the two-year proceedings of the Philippines’ claim on China on the South China Sea dispute, Japan consistently communicated its unequivocal backing to the Philippines’ approach on the basis of international law. On May 23, 2013, no less than Prime Minister Abe conveyed his country’s support to the Philippines’ decision. Tokyo’s public encouragement to Manila in its claims against Beijing brought to light Japan’s determination to prevent any unilateral action that may change the status quo in the South China Sea as it insisted that countries in the region to cooperate and adhere to the UNCLOS.

Japan has also assisted the Philippines in building up its Navy and Coast Guard. A month after the ruling came out, Foreign Minister Kishida met President Rodrigo Duterte in Davao. They discussed how their two countries could work together for the peaceful resolution of the South China Sea dispute based on the Award. He informed President Duterte that Japan intends to move ahead with providing patrol boats to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and leasing the Philippine Navy (PN) with training aircraft for maritime reconnaissance.

During the ASEAN summit in Laos, Prime Minister Abe held his first meeting with President Duterte. He unveiled Japan’s plan to provide two 90-meter patrol vessels in addition to 10 multi-role vessels for the PCG to boost its search-and-rescue and fisheries protection capabilities. He also decided to lend five TC-90 training aircraft to the PN that would useful for reconnaissance missions, disaster relief operations and transporting supplies. Japan’s goal is to assist the Philippines to improve its maritime surveillance capabilities in the light of increasing Chinese maritime activities and despite worsening Philippine-US relations.

During his state visit in January 2017, Abe emphasized that since both the Philippines and Japan are maritime nations, Japan will support the Philippines’ capacity-building in maritime security. On March 28, the first reconnaissance planes were formally transferred to the Philippine Navy.

Japan’s diplomatic and security support to the Philippines is part and parcel of PM Abe’s proactive approach in international affairs.

In December 2012, after his return to power, he pushed Japan to take a proactive role in upholding the liberal international order, with a specific emphasis being placed on the security and governance aspect of the maritime domain. On Dec. 17, 2013, the Japanese government adopted a national strategy that incorporated Abe’s advocacy for Japan’s proactive role in world affairs.

The formulation and release of this national security strategy was a result of the recognition that Japan’s minimalist security policy, which emphasized economics and limited involvement in external security affairs, was inadequate to the new security environment marked by China’s rapid military expansion as well as North Korea’s growing missile capabilities. In the face of these developments, Japan had be responsible for defending the post-Second World War liberal order in East Asia.

Japan launched the “multilayered security cooperation” with like-minded countries that included US allies in the region such as South Korea, Australia, as well as with countries whose coastal territorials are critical to Japanese sea-lanes of communications. In the aftermath of the tense standoff at Scarborough Shoal in 2012, the Philippines requested Japan for patrol ships and diplomatic support. Japan readily extended its helping hand to the Philippines.

Renato Cruz De Castro is a Trustee of Stratbase ADR Institute, and a Professor in DLSU-Manila.