Japan and ASEAN Gradually Enhance Maritime Security Cooperation
Dr. Pham Duy Thuc (*); Pham Thuy Duong (**)

Japan’s Benefits

Japan has key interests in maritime security cooperation with Southeast Asian countries.

Maritime security cooperation with Southeast Asian countries ensures the security, safety, and freedom of navigation for the key routes that fuel Japan’s development. Any disruption of the routes through the South and East China Sea, either because of territorial disputes or piracy, will impact Japan’s economic activities as 42% of maritime commerce and 80% of imported oil of the country is transported through these two regions.[1]

Cooperation with Southeast Asia can also help Japan rally support to respond to China’s “grey zone” challenges, reinforcing maritime rules-based order in the region.[2] Japan is aware that China’s threats in the South and East China Sea are interconnected, especially when China passed the Law on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone in 1992, which asserted sovereignty and sovereign rights in the East and South China Sea. Since 2012, China has stepped up the dispatch of law enforcement vessels to conduct coercive activities against Japan in the East China Sea and Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea.[3] Thus, Japan has actively cooperated with Southeast Asian countries on marine security to collectively resist China's assertive actions, to preserve the status quo in the South and East China Sea, as well as to promote the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, especially the UNCLOS.

In addition, this cooperation helps Japan to restore its regional influence, and accelerate its process to achieve the "normal state” status. Although Japan is one of the world’s leading economies, due to the restriction of the 1947 Constitution[4] and the 1967 Arms Exports Ban[5], its military capabilities are not up to par. Japan is not allowed to have a military, to export weapons and military technology, and to send troops freely abroad to participate in military cooperation activities. To change this, for the first time, Japan’s 2013 National Security Strategy announced the policy of “Proactive contribution to peace”, in which Japan cooperates with other countries to maintain openness and stability at sea, increase the quantity as well as the quality of bilateral and multilateral maritime security cooperation such as military drills, providing aids or law enforcement training to countries alongside its sea transportation routes.[6] In other words, in order to come back to the status of a "normal state”, Japan needs cooperation from other countries, especially in Southeast Asia.[7][8]

A Gradual Progression

On that basis, Japan is active in fostering maritime security cooperation with Southeast Asian countries. Japan’s maritime security cooperation with Southeast Asian countries is constantly expanding, from civil to non-traditional security and military cooperation. Notable developments include the transfer of military equipment and technologies, warship visits and naval military exercises with other countries.

Due to the restriction of the 1947 Constitution and the 1967 Arms Exports Ban, after the Cold War, Japan’s maritime security cooperation with Southeast Asia was in the form of civil cooperation, defense exchange or multilateral security dialogue, aiming towards building trust and strengthening transparency. Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) was closely monitored, with its purpose being restricted to economic-social development, not for military purposes. Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force only participated in regional natural disaster relief activities.

After the piracy attack on the Japanese ship Alondra Rainbow in 1999, Japan’s maritime security cooperation with Southeast Asia was directed at regional piracy prevention activities. In 2004, Japan promoted the signing of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP). ReCAAP’s member countries cooperated in three areas: 1) Cooperating through Information Sharing Center (ISC); 2) Using legal and judicial measures, including extradition and mutual legal assistance; and 3) Capacity building, including technical support as well as training and education programs, to enhance technical capabilities and coordination abilities against piracy.[9]

Japan also found a way to support Southeast Asian countries with military equipment. To fulfill Indonesia’s request for patrol ships against piracy in 2003 and 2004[10], Japan interpreted this as an exception to the Arms Export Ban. Japan agreed with Indonesia that providing patrol ships was a part of the ODA program and these ships would strictly be utilized towards terrorism and piracy prevention and not towards other purposes, and these ships would not be transferred to any third parties without Japan’s approval in advance. On that basis, in 2006, ¥1,92 billion was provided to Indonesia by Japan for the construction of three patrol ships.[11]

Japan’s maritime security cooperation with Southeast Asia in the military realm has been widely expanded as Japan has been gradually loosening of the Arms Export Ban. In December 2011, Japan’s National Security Council agreed to provide more space, allowing Japan to participate in weaponry development and production projects with other countries and to provide military equipment for humanitarian missions.[12] Alongside the policy of “Proactive contribution to peace” in the 2013 National Security Strategy, in 2014, Japan’s National Security Council passed the “three principles” on loosening weapon export, enabling Japan to transfer its defense equipment and technologies if the transfer contributes positively to international peace and cooperation, or to Japan’s security.[13] This also paved the road for Japan to transfer equipment and technology to other countries - including Southeast Asian states - such as the provision of patrol ships and the training of technical skills, the deployment of forces to organize training courses, and cooperation on transferring equipment and technologies through the ODA program. Moreover, Japan has provided Malaysia with two patrol ships; the Philippines with 12 patrol ships, 13 small speedboats, coastal surveillance radars and TC90 aircraft; Vietnam with six patrol ships and seven second-hand ones[14]; as well as signed an agreement on the transfer of defence equipment and technology with Indonesia in March 2021[15]. In the meeting with Singapore’s Prime Minister in June 2022, Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida expressed his interest in negotiating the agreement on the transfer of defence equipment with Singapore.[16] 

Japan also deployed warships to visit and conduct and exercises with other Southeast Asia countries. In 2018, Japan put forward the annual program of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) in the Indian Ocean and in Southeast Asia which includes deploying helicopter carrier groups alongside destroyers and submarines to conduct joint activities with naval forces of partners in the region. Japan sent the destroyer Kaga, Inazuma and Suzutsuki to visit Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore in 2018;[17] sent the helicopter carrier Izumo and the destroyer Murasame to visit Vietnam in 2019; sent the destroyers Kaga and Shiranui to visit Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam in 2021[18]; sent the helicopter carrier Izumo and the destroyer Takanami to visit the Philippines and Vietnam in 2022, sent the destroyers Hatakaze and Inazuma to visit Vietnam in February of 2023, etc.[19]

Japan has been proactive in partaking and hosting military exercises with other countries in the region. Japan participated in the US’ exercises with Southeast Asian countries, and also hosted bilateral naval military exercises with these countries. In 2012, Japan joined the Balikatan exercise between the US and the Philippines for the first time[20]. Since 2018, Japan has regularly joined the Kamandag exercises between the US and the Philippines[21]. In 2022, Japan participated in the Garuda Shield exercise between the US and Indonesia for the first time. Bilaterally speaking, in recent years, Japan has hosted numerous military exercises, including with Indonesia in October 2020, the Philippines in July 2020 and April 2022, Singapore in June 2020 and August 2022, Thailand in March 2022, and Vietnam in October 2021, November 2021, February 2022, and February 2023, etc.[22]

Moreover, Japan has also supported Southeast Asia’s coast guards to enhance their maritime awareness and law enforcement capabilities in their exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in accordance with international laws. For example, in 2019, Japan Coast Guard signed a cooperation agreement with its Indonesian counterpart. Japan also actively hosted MARLEN exercises with Philippine Coast Guard; deployed the patrol vessel Settsu to conduct joint training on search and rescue and fire prevention with Vietnam Coast Guard in February 2023; etc.[23]

Prospects for Short-term Future

Despite the expansion of Japan’s maritime security cooperation with Southeast Asia, there is still potential for further development.

Japan still needs maritime security cooperation with Southeast Asian countries as a means to gather forces to counter China’s unilateral coercive actions, which will change the status quo in the South and East China Sea. Japan’s 2022 National Security Strategy stated that China’s viewpoints and actions, especially on military matters, are a “serious concern”, and are Japan’s “most challenging strategic challenge” to the country’s peace as well as the rules-based order. Thus, Japan must counter with its comprehensive national power and cooperate with its allies and like-minded countries.[24]

Maritime security cooperation with Southeast Asia is a part of Japan's Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIPS). FOIPS covers both land and sea from the Pacific Ocean, across Southeast Asia to the Indian Ocean and Africa, in which the "peace and stability" pillar[25] is related to maritime security, focusing on: 1) capacity-building assistance to coastal countries of the Indo-Pacific (strengthening maritime law enforcement capacity and Maritime Domain Awareness capacity, human resource development, etc.). 2) humanitarian assistance and natural disaster relief; 3) Cooperation in the fields of anti-piracy, counter-terrorism, non-proliferation, etc.[26]

Domestically, Japan has increased its defense budget, including the transfer of technologies and equipment to other countries. Japan raised its defense budget to 2% of its GDP in the 2023-2027 period, reaching ¥43.000 billion (approximately $315 billion), increasing from Japan’s 2019-2023 period budget by ¥15.000 billion (this is Japan’s largest defense budget since World War II)[27]. With an increasing defense budget, Japan can invest more in maritime security cooperation activities with other countries, including Southeast Asian countries, in the fields such as bilateral and multilateral exchange, military exercises, port visits, and cooperation on maritime law enforcement. Japan also can transfer numerous technologies and defense equipment as they are considered “the main policy tool” that could ensure peace, stability and prevent China’s unilateral actions that could change the regional status quo.[28]

In the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’s framework (QUAD), Japan coordinates with its members to provide development assistance for Southeast Asian countries, especially to develop maritime domain awareness (MDA). QUAD initiated the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA), which supports and collaborates with countries and International Fusion Centers (IFC) in Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean, through the provision of technology, to form a joint regional maritime awareness, ensuring regional maritime stability and prosperity[29]. In this joint maritime awareness, IPMDA helps to track “dark shipping” - vessels that disable their automatic identification device or global positioning system (GPS), possibly to conduct illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU). IPMDA also shares real-time data from available commercial satellites to warn Southeast Asian countries about the intrusion or illegal activities of foreign ships in their waters.[30]

According to US researchers Zack Cooper and Gregory Poling, QUAD’s members are planning to buy HawkEye360’s satellite data to share with their regional partners. The US Navy shares its SeaVision ship monitoring platform with countries and IFCs in Singapore, India, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.[31] In addition, QUAD can dispatch its joint law enforcement team to train other countries’ law enforcement forces and assist them in tracking, collecting evidence on maritime criminal and civil cases, and tracking maritime criminal networks, including IUU fishing[32]. Furthermore, scholar Pavan Choudary stated that although the IPMDA aims to monitor IUU fishing, It is essentially a military initiative[33]. IPMDA shares intelligence information with regional partners to counter China’s grey zone tactics - by publicly informing the presence and activities of Chinese ships, especially the ones with coercive, extortive behaviors, and operating illegally in the waters of Southeast Asian countries bordering the South China Sea. IPMDA also aims to limit the Chinese Navy from reaching past the three island chains to the US coastal area as well as the Indian Ocean.[34]

On the other hand, Southeast Asian countries have different levels of discretion and openness in security cooperation with Japan. However, it is positive overall. Southeast Asian countries encourage Japan to deepen security cooperation, as long as it is based on parallel national interests, in accordance with international law and contributes to regional peace and stability. Japan is also recommended to provide public goods and enhance the maritime power of Southeast Asian countries to protect their sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in accordance with international law; to uphold international law and the rules-based regional maritime order; to foster peaceful conflict resolution in accordance to International laws, including the UNCLOS.

(*) East Sea Research institute, The Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam

(**) Student at the Faculty of English and the Faculty of International Relations, Diplomatic Academy, and intern at East Sea Research Institute.

The article is orginially published here

Translated by Nguyen Tien Dat

Revised by Viet Ha and Hoang Do


[1] Hidetaka Yoshimatsu and Dennis D. Trinidad, “Realist Objectives, Liberal Means: Japan, China, and Maritime Security in Southeast Asia,” in: Steven B. Rothman, Utpal Vyas, Yoichiro Sato, Regional Institutions, Geopolitics and Economics in the Asia-Pacific: Evolving Interests and Strategies (London: Routledge, 2017): 130.

[2] Yoichiro Sato, “Japan’s Responses to Chinese Grey-Zone Tactics: Giving Southeast Asia A Leg-up,” Fulcrum, 16/01/2023: https://fulcrum.sg/japans-responses-to-chinese-grey-zone-tactics-giving-southeast-asia-a-leg-up/

[3] - Japan's first National Security Strategy in 2013 states that China is taking actions to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas through coercive actions.

- Japan’s Defense White Papers, published in 2016 have always criticized China for taking "coercive and unilateral" actions to change the status quo, create disruption, and cause unintended consequences that are inconsistent with the current international order. View in: Japan Ministry of Defense, Defense White Paper 2016, p.41; Japan Ministry of Defense, Defense of Japan 2022, p.31, 33; Japan National Security Strategy 2013: https://www.cas.go.jp/jp/siryou/131217anzenhoshou/nss-e.pdf.

[4] Section 9 of Japan’s 1947 Constitution stated that: 1) Japanese citizens truthfully desire an international peace that is based on righteousness and order, eternally pleading to not wage wars as an international conflict resolve measure, including wars infringing upon national sovereignty and acts of force or acts of threatening by force; 2) In order to fulfill aforementioned sections, Japan’s army, navy, and air force, as well as other potential war means, will be dispatched. The country’s right to war will fail to be recognized. 

[5] It is also called the “Three principles of arms export”, including 1) socialist states; 2) countries banned from exporting weapons under a United Nations Security Council resolution; 3) countries that participate or have a possibility to participate in international conflicts. 

[6] Japan National Security Strategy 2013: https://www.cas.go.jp/jp/siryou/131217anzenhoshou/nss-e.pdf

[7] Do Son Hai, “Will Japan returns back to a “normal state” under Shinzo Abe’s regime?”, [Nước Nhật sẽ trở lại “bình thường” dưới thời Shinzo Abe?], Nhan Dan, 14/01/2013. 

[8] Céline Pajon, “Japan’s “Smart” Strategic Engagement in Southeast Asia,” Asan, 06/12/2013.

[9] https://www.recaap.org

[10] Indonesia’s President Megawati Sukarnoputri offers her request in 2003. Foreign minister Noer Hassan Wirajuda offers his request in 2004. 

[11] https://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/oda/white/2006/ODA2006/html/honpen/hp202040400.htm

[12] People's Army Newspaper, “Japan’s loosening on Arms Export Ban strategy”, [Nhật Bản nới lỏng chính sách cấm xuất khẩu vũ khí], 27/12/2011

[13] The three principles are: 1) Clarify prohibited transfers such as the violation of the obligations of treaties and agreements to which Japan has signed, the violation of the obligations of a United Nations Security Council resolution, the transfer of equipment and technology to a conflicting country to which the United Nations Security Council is taking measures to maintain and restore peace; 2) Limit transparent transfer cases (closely examine and publish information) to contribute to Japan’s peace, international cooperation, and security; 3) Control of off-the-shelf use and transfer to third parties. View in: Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Three Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology, Tokyo, 01 April 2014: https://www.mofa.go.jp/files/000034953.pdf ; Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Implementation Guidelines for the Three Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology, Tokyo, 01 April 2014: https://www.mofa.go.jp/files/000034954.pdf 

[14] Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Free and Open Indo-Pacific: https://www.mofa.go.jp/files/000430632.pdf

[15] Janes, “Japan, Indonesia sign defense trade deal,” 31 March 2021.

[16] NHK, “Prime Minister Kishida attends the Asian Security Conference to announce the Kishida Vision,” [岸田首相 アジア安全保障会議出席 岸田ビジョンを発表], 11/6/2022: https://www.nhk.or.jp/politics/articles/statement/84235.html

[17] The trip that visited India and Sri Lanka

[18] The trip visited Australia, New Caledonia of France, India, and Sri Lanka. 

[19] The trip visited Australia, Fiji, New Caledonia of France, India, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon, Tonga, the US, and Vanuatu. View in: https://www.mod.go.jp/msdf/en/exercises/IPD22.html

[20] Daniel M. Kliman and Daniel Twining, “Japan democracy diplomacy,” The German Marshall Fund of the United States, July 11, 2014.

[21] The Joint Statement on the visit to Japan by The Philippines President Marcos Jr on February 9, 2023, affirmed the strengthening of Japan-US-Africa trilateral cooperation mechanisms. View in: Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan–Philippines Joint Statement, 09/02/2023: https://www.mofa.go.jp/files/100457513.pdf

[22] JMSDF, Exercises: https://www.mod.go.jp/msdf/en/exercises/

[23] US Indo-Pacific Command, U.S. Japan, and the Philippines Hold Joint Maritime Law Enforcement Training,” 9 May 2022.

[24] Japan National Security Strategy 2022: https://www.cas.go.jp/jp/siryou/221216anzenhoshou/nss-e.pdf

[25] FOIPS’s three pillars of Japan include: 1) Promote and establish the rule of law, freedom of navigation, and free trade; 2) Achieve economic prosperity; 3) Commitment to peace and stability. 

[26] Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, A New Foreign Policy Strategy: “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy”: https://www.asean.emb-japan.go.jp/files/000352880.pdf

[27] Japan Times, “Japan to increase defense budget by ¥1 trillion in fiscal 2023,” 09/12/2022; Japan National Security Strategy 2022: https://www.cas.go.jp/jp/siryou/221216anzenhoshou/nss-e.pdfTuổi trẻ, “Nhật Bản tăng mạnh ngân sách quốc phòng,” 16/12/2022.

[28] Japan National Security Strategy 2022: https://www.cas.go.jp/jp/siryou/221216anzenhoshou/nss-e.pdf

[29] White House, Quad Joint Leaders’ Statement, 24/5/2022: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/05/24/quad-joint-leaders-statement/

[30] White House, FACT SHEET: Quad Leaders’ Tokyo Summit 2022, 23/5/2022: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/05/23/fact-sheet-quad-leaders-tokyo-summit-2022/

[31] Zack Cooper and Gregory Poling, “The QUAD goes to sea,” War on the Rock, 24/5/2022: https://warontherocks.com/2022/05/the-quad-goes-to-sea/

[32] Erin Mello, “A focused direction for the Quad,” The Interpreter, 19/12/2022: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/focused-direction-quad

[33] Ridipt Singh, “Understanding Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness Initiative,” CESCUBE, 14/7/2022: https://www.cescube.com/vp-understanding-indo-pacific-maritime-domain-awareness-initiative

[34] CNBC, “The Quad’s new maritime initiative has potential to spur militarization of the Indo-Pacific,” 08/6/202: https://www.cnbc.com/2022/06/09/quads-maritime-initiative-could-spur-militarization-of-indo-pacific.html