Increasing political friction in Asia has prompted Japan to alter its maritime strategy. In an important article published in 2011, former president of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Staff College, Vice Admiral Masanori Yoshida, emphasized the need for Japan to focus on “area stability.”1 This aim has taken root in Japan’s foreign policy. At the meeting to commemorate the “40th Year of ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations]-Japan Friendship and Cooperation,” held in Tokyo in December 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe highlighted Japan’s “enhanced commitment for the maintenance of peace, security, and stability, which is in the regional and global interests.”2 The logic is clear: Antagonistic relations between other countries in the region have an impact on Japan’s own security, and therefore it is wise for Japan to take an active interest in peaceable resolution of disagreements. The question becomes, what might this mean in practice?
Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the Philippines in late 2013, reminds us that multilateral cooperation in dealing with major natural disasters represents a common interest in the Asia-Pacific region. This is a good foundation on which to build. Cooperation in humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief (HA/DR) operations is an excellent platform to create the good will, trust, and amity the region so clearly needs. In fact, the institutional framework already exists.
Regional Forum: From Talk to Action
Established in 1994 to nurture positive relations between Asia-Pacific nations, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was long derided as a “talk shop,” with few genuine achievements to its credit. This changed, however, at the 15th ARF ministerial meeting in 2008 with the signing of an agreement to promote disaster-relief cooperation between ARF participants. In May 2009, 26 ARF members—including Japan, China, and the United States—participated in the group’s first event, held in the Philippines. Called the Voluntary Demonstration of Response (VDR) because of the latitude given to each nation in terms of degree of participation, the event was a great success. The HA/DR exercise included search-and-rescue, medical, and construction operations, with roughly 500 personnel participating. For its part, Japan sent 100 personnel, the largest number after the Philippines, and a Japanese US-2 amphibious search-and-rescue aircraft conducted a demonstration search-and-rescue exercise.3
Subsequent exercises, called ARF-DiREx, took place in 2011 (Indonesia) and 2013 (Thailand), with excellent participation from ARF nations. Japan and Indonesia cohosted ARF-DiREx2011, which took place in March 2011, in Manado at the northern tip of Indonesia’s Sulawesi (Celebes) Island.4 An assumption for the exercise was that the Indonesian president would declare an emergency and request help from ARF nations in response to the destruction of buildings and other damage caused by a magnitude-7.5 earthquake in waters off Manado and successive tsunami waves. More than 4,000 people from over 25 nations, regions, and organizations, including ASEAN nations, China, Australia, the European Union, and India, participated in the exercise that covered search-and-rescue, ground, maritime, and air operations, joint-operation coordination-center management, and other physical operations, as well as a tabletop exercise, medical operations, and construction and reconstruction operations. Japan had planned to send close to 400 personnel along with a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Osumi-class transport ship, KC-767 and C-130H transport aircraft from the Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF), and helicopters from the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) and ASDF, as well as Japan International Cooperation Agency members. However, the 11 March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake forced Japan to drastically scale back its participation, ultimately sending only some 40 people for the tabletop exercise.
Most recently, in May 2013, Korea and Thailand cohosted ARF-DiREx2013 in Thailand to improve civil/military coordination and disaster-relief operations among the ARF participants. It was the first time for the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management to play a significant role in the ARF-DiREx. With the framework for HA/DR cooperation already in place, now is the time for Japan to play a more active role in materializing all of the potential benefits to both individual participants and the region as a whole.
Japan: Primed for Prominence
Given its unique circumstances, it makes sense for Japan to assume a leadership position within the ARF HA/DR exercise framework. Japan has suffered numerous devastating natural disasters in its modern history. As a result, it has accumulated the know-how and developed the special skills needed to conduct successful disaster-relief operations.5 The Self-Defense Forces have accumulated the comprehensive disaster-relief capabilities that include collecting and analyzing on-site needs and delivering needed supplies through various domestic and international experiences. Additionally, more active participation in the ARF framework would allow Japan to both contribute more to regional stability while preserving continuity with the nation’s postwar role in Asia.
Military operations are often categorized as “war” and “military operations other than war (MOOTW).” MOOTW include both a range of combat operations and a range of non-combat operations. The purely non-combat operations of MOOTW include freedom of navigation, humanitarian assistance, and protection of shipping. Each of these is commonly referred to as a non-combat military operation (NCMO) and represents a special niche for Japan; HA/DR operations sit at the heart of NCMO.6
As the biggest repository of Japan’s HA/DR acumen, the JMSDF would play a large role in any new or augmented ARF HA/DR initiatives. Japan’s approach should include four main aspects. First, Japan should push for HA/DR exercises to take place in the South China Sea, applying the benefits of cooperation where they are most needed. Japan can take leadership in cooperating with the ARF in planning and implementing HA/DR exercises. Considering infrastructure such as harbors and facilities, Guam would be the best base for these operations.
Second, Japan should take the initiative in creating rules such as HA/DR cooperation guidelines. Past experiences show that HA/DR exercises feature a wide range of participants, including not only government but also international organizations and non-governmental organizations. Japan has tremendous know-how through experiences with the Great East Japan Earthquake and the 2004 Sumatra earthquake and thus is well positioned to take the lead in working out guidelines for HA/DR cooperation within the ARF framework.
Third, Japan can make contributions to the region by directly helping other participant nations improve situational assessments, relief transportation, and communications capacities. Provision of Japan’s US-2 amphibious search-and-rescue aircraft and relevant operational and technical support to ASEAN nations will contribute to much-needed capacity-building efforts.
Finally, Japan should proactively seek to ensure China’s commitment to the framework. Contrary to the views of some, becoming more involved in the ARF for the purposes of “hedging” against the rise of an assertive China is not sound policy.7 China must be fully and directly engaged, and HA/DR operations through ARF will help achieve that important end.
China’s Part to Play
It is important to reiterate that the aim of greater Japanese involvement in the ARF is not to exclude China or diminish its position in the region. Rather, the hope is that China will earnestly take part, lending its energies and capacities to the undertaking. And there is good reason to believe that it will. China’s inability to directly contribute to disaster relief after the 2004 tsunami was seen by many Chinese as a missed opportunity. Since that time, China has invested in HA/DR assets and sought opportunities to contribute to regional initiatives. Following its hesitant participation in the 2009 ARF VDR, it has consistently supported HA/DR cooperation within the context of the ARF. In fact, at the 20th ARF ministerial meeting in July 2013, China offered to cochair ARF-DiREx2015.8
China has a strong desire to promote an image of its rise as uniquely peaceful, even if it has not always succeed in doing so. Given the developments of the last few years, Chinese thinkers (and presumably policymakers) recognize the country has an image problem, an especially hard reality to face in light of the leadership’s obsession with cultivating “soft power.”9 In a representative text, Chinese scholar Yu Xintian asserted that China must learn from the experience of other major powers that have fully integrated hard and soft power if it aspires to a more leading international role.10 This desire has been stated at important government gatherings, such as the 2010 National People’s Congress, when then-Premier Wen Jiabao highlighted the need for China to enhance its global image by the exercise of soft power.11
Admittedly, China is likely to be cagey about Japanese initiatives in the region. If the headlines of Chinese newspapers are any indicator of the thinking of Chinese policymakers, suspicions run very deep. However, the framework already exists, China has a history of participation, and, given the manifestly benign nature of the exercises, there’s little fuel for conspiracy theory. To further emphasize its sincerity, Japan should go out of its way to demonstrate to China that it truly seeks its participation in any Japan-led initiatives: Something as simple as formal invitation letters, for instance, can effectively convey Japan’s sincerity.
‘The Obvious Good’
There are clear—and, at times, counterproductive—geopolitical, historical, and cultural differences between nations in the Asia-Pacific region. Therefore, it is vital to exploit any potential for good will. All countries within the region recognize the importance of effectively responding to the humanitarian disasters that periodically take place. Multilateral cooperation is indispensable. But more than just the obvious good that comes from bringing greater resources to bear, the common desire to improve responses to disasters can, if adroitly channeled, help create the conditions to dramatically improve regional security. HA/DR operations within the ARF framework have the potential to serve as a big first step toward knitting the region together and achieving the area stability that Japan and other nations so earnestly seek. Japan is uniquely well positioned to support this worthy endeavor.
And it need not end there. The NCMO approach may be able to promote more effective multilateral cooperation in addressing not only HA/DR operations but also counterterrorism, maritime security, peacekeeping operations and other non-traditional security issues. An expanding foundation of cooperation will lead to a positive counterweight to geopolitical tensions, hopefully shifting momentum in favor of the former.
In a speech at the 2014 World Economic Form, Prime Minister Abe remarked that a new Japan is now waving a banner for “proactive contribution to peace.” Abe amplified his message by asking the audience, “Is such a thing impossible in Japan?”12 By taking the initiative with an NCMO approach in the ARF framework, Japan will gain an enhanced presence within international society and demonstrate the vision of a responsible power. It is necessary to change the way of thinking to the mindset of “yes, it is possible.”
1. VADM Masanori Yoshida, JMSDF, “Kaijo Jieitai niyoru Kokusai Katsudo no Jissen to Kyokun— Perushawan ni okeru Sokaikatsudo to Indoyo ni okeru Hokyukatsudo wo Chushinni” [“JMSDF International Operations and Lessons—Focusing on Persian Gulf Minesweeping Operations and Indian Ocean Replenishment Operations”], Kokusai Anzenhosho [International Security], vol. 38, no. 4 (March 2011), 18–19.
2. Shinzo Abe, “Joint Statement of the ASEAN-Japan Commemorative Summit, ‘Hand in Hand, Facing Regional and Global Challenges,’” 14 December 2013, www.mofa.go.jp/.
3. As a chief representative from the Ministry of Defense Joint Staff Office for Planning, Coordination, and Implementation for the ARF VDR exercise, the author participated in preparatory meetings for the disaster-relief exercise and the exercise itself.
4. Ministry of Foreign Affairs,“ARF Disaster Relief Exercise (ARF—DiRE x 2011),” April 2011, www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/area/asean/arf/arf-direx2011/gaiyo.html/.
5. Nikkei Shimbun, 13 September 2011.
6. VADM Richard Hunt and RADM Robert Girrier, USN, “RIMPAC Builds Partnerships That Last,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 137, no. 10 (October 2011), 76–77. CAPT Takuya Shimodaira, JMSDF, “NCMO INITIATIVE–RIMPAC 2010 ni miru aratanaru chosen no michi” [“NCMO INITIATIVE—New Ways for Challenge as Suggested by RIMPAC 2010], Hato vol. 211 (November 2010).
7. Hideshi Futori, “Japan’s Disaster Relief Diplomacy: Fostering Military Cooperation in Asia,” Asia Pacific Bulletin, no. 213, 13 May 2013.
8. “ARF Chairman’s Statements and Reports,” aseanregionalforum.asean.org/library/arf-chairmans-statements-and-reports.html/.
9. [Wang Yizhou], [Non-Traditional Security Studies], (2006), p. 41. Ling Jun, “‘Warm Power’ Heats up China’s Relations with Neighboring Countries,” Global Times, 24 October 2013.
10. [Yu Xintian], [“Construction of Soft Power and China’s Foreign Strategy”], [International Studies], 2008 issue no. 2, 15–20.
11. People’s Daily, 21 September 2010.
12. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speech, “A New Vision from a New Japan,” World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, 22 January 2014, www.kantei.go.jp/.