Japan's Southwest Pivot: How Tokyo Can Expand Its Eyes and Ears in the Ocean

USS George Washington leads the George Washington Carrier Strike Group and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships. Flickr/U.S. Navy

Beijing's activity in the South China Sea could prompt Japan to look for creative ways to expand its maritime capabilities.

Amid uncertainty over the U.S. pivot to Asia under the current Trump administration, other key players in the Indo-Pacific continue about their own equivalent policies of regional engagement. India’s “Act East” policy of engaging with countries east of the Malacca Strait, especially Southeast Asian countries, continues apace. Meanwhile, Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been going about with its southwest pivot. Earlier, there had been reports about Tokyo conceiving the Vientiane Vision—a grand blueprint that outlines the scope and extent to which Japan would engage with Southeast Asian countries in the defense and security realm.

Japanese defense officials have said that the Vientiane Vision remains a preliminary work in progress; discussions are still ongoing with their Southeast Asian counterparts to “concretize” projects of interest. Without a doubt, maritime security capacity-building assistance features high on the agenda. Abe’s southwest pivot to South and Southeast Asia countries thus carries a distinctly maritime flavor. The 2015 iteration of Tokyo’s Official Development Assistance plan also highlighted the need to assist in building maritime safety capacities of these envisaged partner states.

To be certain, China’s more muscular forays in the Indo-Pacific—growing assertiveness in the East and South China Seas, as well as expanding footprints in the Indian Ocean—constitute one of the key motivations for this southwest pivot. Unlike his predecessors, Abe has been keen to backup his words with monetary investments. He has been pushing for practical initiatives designed to build maritime safety and security capacities of those countries in need. And more than a mere coincidence, some of these recipient governments do have their own contention with Beijing; recently, Tokyo has delivered used and new-build patrol vessels to the Philippines and Vietnam—Beijing’s primary South China Sea rivals.

Beyond surface-patrol assets, Japan has lately expanded the repertoire of capacity-building assistance to include aerial assets for promoting maritime domain awareness (MDA).

Broadening “Act West” Efforts: The Philippine Example

The most recent example has been the lease of five Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) TC-90 turboprop-driven planes to the Philippines. In fact, the Japanese TC-90, which is a local derivative of the Beechcraft King Air (with a maritime patrol version currently in service with the Malaysians), is not specifically designed for MDA, but for training purposes. Unlike the P-3C Orion maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft, the smaller TC-90 is handicapped by range, endurance and payload capacity. Nonetheless, it is still far superior to the antiquated Britten-Norman Islander aircraft the Filipinos had been deploying for MDA tasks. To compound the qualitative problems of the Islander airplanes, the Philippine Naval Air Group does not even have enough of the machines to cover its entire archipelago. At best, the operational readiness of the Islander airplanes has been dubious, notwithstanding the practice of cannibalizing parts from existing airframes to keep at least one flyable.

Therefore, the arrival of the TC-90s has been timely, and serves at least as an interim, stop-gap measure to arrest the atrophy faced by the Naval Air Group. Moreover, even though the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte has been on an upswing of relations with Beijing, there is clearly no room for complacency. While China comes showering Manila with generous investment pledges and financial grants, Beijing is reportedly up to something in the South China Sea. In middle of March this year, Philippine defense authorities highlighted China’s purported plans to construct facilities on the Scarborough Shoal, notwithstanding the modus vivendi struck by Manila and Beijing over the disputed feature last year.

And to top it off, the perceived Chinese encroachment into Philippine waters of national interest has gone further eastward—to the resource-rich Benham Rise east of the Philippine archipelago, on which Manila possesses sovereign rights as mandated by the United Nations. Following reported passages by Chinese survey vessels in the said area, and facing no small amount of domestic pressure to act decisively, the Duterte administration has ordered the Philippine Navy to conduct patrols to assert the country’s sovereign rights to Benham Rise.

The same day as the first pair of TC-90s arrived in the Philippines, Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief-of-Staff General Eduardo Año remarked that the planes would be deployed to monitor the South China Sea and Benham Rise. At a cost of $28,000 per year, the lease certainly provides an attractive proposition to Manila. The TC-90s would extend the Philippines’ limited shore-based radar coverage, fronted first and foremost by its National Coast Watch System, further into areas of concern. While no panacea to its significant MDA shortfalls, the Japanese planes would at least give Manila more policy options to cope with foreign predation upon its maritime interests, be it in the Spratlys or Benham Rise.

Practical Benefits of Building Aerial MDA Capacity