Japan’s arms transfers to Southeast Asia: Upping the ante?

Japan's new Official Security Assistance (OSA) scheme would help arm regional countries in the face of growing Chinese assertiveness. A lesser-known aspect of OSA might actually bring some serious military capabilities to the region in the future.
Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (back right) and Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (back left) attend a document exchange ceremony with Japan Coast Guard Commandant Shohei Ishii (front right) and Philippine Coast Guard Commandant Ronnie Gil Gavan (front left) at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, 17 December 2023. Both countries leaders met on the sidelines of the Commemorative Summit for the 50th Year of ASEAN-Japan Friendship and Cooperation. (Franck Robichon/Reuters)
Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (back right) and Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (back left) attend a document exchange ceremony with Japan Coast Guard Commandant Shohei Ishii (front right) and Philippine Coast Guard Commandant Ronnie Gil Gavan (front left) at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, 17 December 2023. Both countries leaders met on the sidelines of the Commemorative Summit for the 50th Year of ASEAN-Japan Friendship and Cooperation. (Franck Robichon/Reuters)

In the past year, Tokyo has moved formally beyond its pacifistic constraints to help arm its neighbours in the region.

The provision of additional security capacity to Southeast Asian countries could also see a first: Japan building defence infrastructure such as seaports and airports to facilitate use by Japanese troops in the future.

Japan’s 'proactive contribution to peace'

Japan’s new Official Security Assistance (OSA) scheme was first mooted in its 2022 National Security Strategy (NSS). In April 2023, the OSA was presented as an initiative to strengthen the “security capacities” of like-minded states and improve their “deterrence capabilities”. The 2022 NSS underscores Japan’s desire to arm regional countries and uphold the regional order, particularly in the face of “China’s growing attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by force”.

The OSA will be used for three main areas: ensuring peace and stability based on the rule of the law; humanitarian activities; and international peacekeeping.

In November and December 2023, Japan allocated nearly 2 billion yen (US$18.2 million) to four countries — Bangladesh, Fiji, Malaysia and the Philippines. This included 600 million yen to the Philippines for coastal radar systems and 400 million yen for rescue boats used for monitoring and surveillance by the Malaysian Armed Forces. The total figure is reported to rise to 5 billion yen in the next fiscal year ending March 2025.

It should be noted that Japan took many years to come up with the OSA scheme. There has always been an underlying tension between the country’s pacifistic principles and the imperative to enhance the military capabilities of partners who would jointly uphold a rules-based order in response to the changing balance of power in the region (Japan’s “proactive contribution to peace”, as coined by the late Premier Shinzo Abe).

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Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force's Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB) soldiers train on the flight deck of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force's amphibious transport ship JS Shimokita (LST-4002) in waters close to Tokunoshima Island, Japan, on 16 November 2023. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

For years, Japan maintained that its Official Development Assistance (ODA) cannot be used to transfer military materiel to other countries, but only for economic and social development. This, however, did not stop Japan from a sleight of hand.

In 2015, Japan gave ODA a "strategic edge", which enables Japan to send vessels, aircraft and radar systems to help South China Sea claimant states augment their maritime surveillance capabilities.

Under this scheme, some military-grade equipment was transferred or sold to Southeast Asian countries.

For example, ten vessels of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force’s Bizan-class patrol boats were transferred to the Philippines. In 2021, Japan signed a deal with Indonesia to sell eight Mogami-class frigates. The sale of the naval vessels was deftly categorised as a “joint development” to sidestep an arms export ban. 

... the OSA [Official Security Assistance] provides a more open and direct way for Japan to provide grants for defence equipment and associated infrastructure for Southeast Asian militaries.

OSA: modest at best

Understandably, the use of ODA (and associated sleights of hand) to provide capacity-building for law enforcement and military forces was inconsistent. Compared to the ODA regime, the OSA provides a more open and direct way for Japan to provide grants for defence equipment and associated infrastructure for Southeast Asian militaries.

Still, the OSA remains modest at best, and its effectiveness in beefing up the deterrent capabilities of regional countries depends on how far Japan is willing to go with the scheme.

Technically, the OSA restricts Japan to areas such as rescue, transport, warning, surveillance and minesweeping. A clear example of this is the transfer of coastal radar systems to the Philippines in November 2023. There is some debate in Japan about allowing the export of lethal weapons, such as surveillance ships armed with weapons. But change will take time.

There is also a bureaucratic hurdle: rather than being managed by the Ministry of Defense (which is more appropriate), the OSA is managed under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Security Assistance Division.

How Tokyo can sustain planned increases in its defence budget amid sluggish economic growth remains a big question going forward.

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Vietnam's President Vo Van Thuong (right) and Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (left) arrive for a document exchange ceremony and joint press conference after their meeting at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on 27 November 2023. (Richard A. Brooks/AFP)

Currently, the OSA scheme, at 2 billion yen for the fiscal year ending March 2024, represents a lack of ambition financially. To put things in perspective, Japan was already transferring maritime assets to Southeast Asian countries under its older ODA framework at far higher quantum values.

Japan transferred ten patrol vessels to the Philippines for 12.7 billion yen (the ships were launched in 2016 and 2018). In 2020, Japan agreed to sell six Aso-class naval vessels to Vietnam for coast guard operations, for 36.6 billion yen.

How Tokyo can sustain planned increases in its defence budget amid sluggish economic growth remains a big question going forward.

Like the US, Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB) deployments would also serve as a deterrent against China.

Enhancing SEA partners' capabilities and facilities

On the bright side, a little-known aspect of OSA might actually deliver some real capabilities to Southeast Asia — particularly for the programme’s first beneficiary, the Philippines — as the region grapples with China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. The OSA allows Japan to help partner countries develop dual-use airports and seaports. This would promote visits by naval ships and aircraft of the JSDF.

According to Ippeita Niishida, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, the context for this has been set. In February last year, Japan and the Philippines signed an agreement allowing the JSDF to access locations in the Philippines for use during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations.

This is similar to the US, which signed an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with Manila in 2014. While EDCA allows US forces to operate from EDCA locations in a HADR role, it would also allow for the patrol and monitoring of areas around the Philippines, and serve as a deterrent against China.

The same could apply to Japan. Niishida adds that under the 2023 deal between Tokyo and Manila, the JSDF’s Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB), which is styled after the US Marine Corps, could use Philippine facilities as launch points for HADR activities. Like the US, ARDB deployments would also serve as a deterrent against China.

It was nearly 20 years ago that Japan sent 950 troops to Aceh to help victims of the 2004 tsunami — Japan’s biggest deployment since the Second World War. The deployment of ARDB units to the Philippines — if realised — would be historic, and proof that Japan could indeed play a proactive role in contributing to regional stability.

This article was first published in Fulcrum, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s blogsite.

Related: What removing the defence budget cap means for Japan’s role in the Indo-Pacific | Japan’s weapons transfers to Southeast Asia: Opportunities and challenges | Japan's move towards acquisition of strike capabilities could benefit Southeast Asia