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

April 3, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: JapanSouth China SeaDefenseStrategyShinzo AbeChina

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

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


The state-of-the-art ShinMaywa US-2 amphibious airplanes are expensive, too. At $113 million apiece, a concessionary price lowered from the original $133 million aimed at clinching the Indian deal, a new-built US-2 would be out of reach for many cash-starved Indo-Pacific militaries. Japan earlier offered the US-2 to Indonesia at a reported price of $100 million per unit, but recently Jakarta has evinced interest in the Russian Beriev Be-200 multipurpose amphibious aircraft, priced at approximately $30-40 million each; though, this may come at the expense of higher after-sales services costs, which Soviet-Russian arms are quite known for.

In short, selling newbuild airplanes like the P-1 or US-2 would be challenging for Japan since there would be tight competition out there. The more feasible pathway for Japan would be to hinge on transferring used—or surplus—airframes to Indo-Pacific partners. But at present, considering that the P-3C is a fully-armed maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft that can carry out kinetic, offensive tasks, such as anti-shipping strikes and anti-submarine prosecution, transferring the airplanes to foreign partners could be labeled by some as a form of re-militarism.  


In April 2014, the old “Three Principles on Arms Exports” was replaced by the new “Three Principles for the Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology”—a rule that approves the export of arms under certain conditions. But Tokyo remains hesitant; if lethal weapons sold or transferred by Japan eventually killed or maimed someone, hard-line “pacifists” might lobby for stricter regulations on its arms export policy. A recent episode revolving around the Japanese peacekeepers’ logs in South Sudan amplified the hard realities faced by the defense establishment in navigating such political minefields, especially concerning controversial security-related policies that touch on the Pacifist Constitution.

Looking Ahead

A plausible way forward would be if Tokyo scaled down the capabilities of the P-3Cs—essentially “defanging” the airframes by removing offensive armaments—and rendered them as harmless, purely-for-surveillance platforms. But that’s assuming that more P-3Cs are gradually decommissioned and made eligible for transfers to foreign partners. This option ought to alleviate external and domestic criticisms about Tokyo’s strategic intent and help in some way to overcome certain legal obstacles. It also could reduce the costs for recipients.

Of course, Japan could leverage on its advantage of transferring used equipment that had over the years in service been meticulously maintained and cared for by Japanese technicians. The TC-90s leased to the Philippines are still in above-average conditions and which means they have sufficient lifespan in them. Hence, while the P-1 enters service with the MSDF in larger numbers, Tokyo could correspondingly also transfer more maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft to Indo-Pacific partners in need of aerial MDA capacities. 

To add value to this, Japan may also consider leveraging on its strong electronics industry to establish data and information-sharing facilities amongst friendly regional partners, either on its own efforts via the Vientiane Vision or in concert with other major players, such as India and the United States. These ground-based facilities could not only promote information sharing, but also strive towards a common MDA picture amongst governments who come on board such an endeavor. Compared to the mere sale or transfer of planes, the envisaged outcome—a more integrated network of MDA information-sharing nodes strategically located in allies and friendly partners throughout the Indo-Pacific—could be more beneficial for Japan and good order in the regional maritime commons.

Satoru Nagao is a research fellow at the Tokyo Foundation and a lecturer in security and national strategy at Gakushuin University. Koh Swee Lean Collin is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies based in Singapore.

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