Japan to help improve maritime capabilities of 4 Asean states amid South China Sea row

Japan is drawing up a new 10-year plan to improve the maritime capabilities of four nations in Southeast Asia that are struggling to resist growing encroachment into their territorial waters by China.

Tokyo has previously delivered maritime equipment to a number of countries in the region under one-off arrangements, but the new initiative is designed to provide sustained and evolving assistance over a period of a decade, according to an official of the National Institute of Defence Studies (NIDS), a think tank affiliated with Japan’s Ministry of Defence.

The assistance is to be provided to the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, all of which have territorial claims in the South China Sea that have been impacted by China occupying atolls and shoals in the region, said Masafumi Iida, a leading China analyst at NIDS.

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A China Coast Guard ship moves past a Philippine Coast Guard vessel BRP Sindangan in the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, in the South China Sea. Photo: Bloomberg

He added that Tokyo was considering expanding the scheme to include Sri Lanka in the future, as it occupies a strategic position in the Indian Ocean.

The details of the project are being drawn up by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which is usually tasked by the government with implementing overseas development assistance schemes to build schools, hospitals and other infrastructure in developing nations.

“Japan announced the introduction of the Official Security Assistance (OSA) at the start of fiscal 2024 in April last year, to serve as a new framework for providing security assistance to other countries that require such help,” Iida said.

OSA will run in parallel to Japanese Overseas Development Assistance to all four nations, he added.

“The major purpose of OSA is to enhance these nations’ maritime domain awareness and capabilities and help to maintain stability,” Iida told This Week in Asia.

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Beijing and Manila trade blame over ‘provocative’ moves with ship collisions near disputed shoal

Beijing and Manila trade blame over ‘provocative’ moves with ship collisions near disputed shoal

The assistance will take the form of “bigger and faster cutters”, he suggested, as well as advanced radar to enable countries to obtain a better picture of the maritime threats that they face.

In the future, Japan is expected to provide reconnaissance drones and manned surveillance aircraft, Iida added.

“These countries lack maritime domain awareness, particularly the Philippines, and that is critical to maintaining stability in the South China Sea,” he said. “This is a substantial commitment, and the fact that this support is being provided over a prolonged, 10-year term, underlines Japan’s resolve to continue to support the nations of Southeast Asia.”

Senior officials of JICA and Japan’s embassy in Manila met representatives of the Philippine government on January 18 to discuss the most effective forms of OSA that might be provided by Tokyo amid the evolving security challenges in the region.

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Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visits the BRP Teresa Magbanua ship at the Philippine Coast Guard headquarters in Manila on November 4, 2023. Photo: AFP

During a state visit in November, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida signed an agreement to provide 600 million yen (US$4 million) in grant aid for coastal surveillance radars, the Philippine Department of Defence said. Both sides also agreed to step up discussions on information-sharing, hardware and software support and technical assistance.

JICA personnel have already conducted on-site surveys for projects in the Philippines and Indonesia, with similar surveys scheduled to take place in Malaysia and Vietnam in April. The agency will submit a detailed plan of the four nations’ requirements before March next year, national broadcaster NHK reported.

“I do not expect a direct reaction from the Chinese government to this initiative, although of course some Chinese analysts and the media will criticise,” Iida said.

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