Yellow Pad

In light of recent regional maritime disputes involving China and the Philippines, Japan’s maritime strategy to calm tensions cannot be ignored.

For Japan — which is dependent on the sea for its economic growth and for its survival — the protection of its trade routes has always been a priority. However, unlike other highly developed states which can rely on their navy, Japan has to be innovative in ensuring that its sea trade routes are safe, clean, and secure. Japan’s pacifist constitution and sensitive Japanese public opinion are the reasons why none of its leaders in the post-World War II period have resorted to the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force, its navy, for protection of its trade, despite its potent capabilities.

Moreover, Japan’s imperialist past has made it more complicated and sensitive to deal with the sovereign Southeast Asian countries whose maritime domains serve as the nautical highway for Japan’s commerce and energy requirement.

For almost 50 years, the country has relied on the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) to protect its trade routes by basically performing functions related to maritime safety, marine environmental protection, and maritime law enforcement. Said differently, the Japanese government has used “coast guard diplomacy.”

Japan’s “coast guard diplomacy” has been successful in stimulating cooperation with Southeast Asian countries because such an approach serves both the interests of Japan and the region. This cooperation is continuously evolving and has been demarcated by various factors domestically and internationally.

Employing the JCG to spearhead Japan’s maritime diplomacy was not a clear-cut plan in the beginning. JCG’s initial role was to improve the safety of navigation of the Strait of Malacca and Singapore (SOMS). This was the main concern in the 1960s.

The grounding of the supertanker Showa Maru in the SOMS in 1975 and alarming oil spills in different parts of the globe led to making marine environmental protection a critical JCG function.

In the 1990s, piracy and armed robbery at sea triggered Tokyo to shift JCG’s attention to maritime law enforcement.

Through the years, JCG has performed these three roles simultaneously, with the emphasis depending on specific conditions.

However, since the return of Shinzo Abe as Prime Minister at a time of China’s rising and indisputable assertiveness, there is a new fourth phase of “coast guard diplomacy” — maritime security.

Learning from his predecessors and acting in line with Japan’s pacifist constitution, Abe has recognized that the utilization of gray ships cannot be the best course of action in responding to the threats within its maritime jurisdiction and along sea trade routes. The established cooperation of Japan’s coast guard in the region, which was laid down long before Abe became the prime minister, has emerged as the new foundation of Abe’s maritime diplomacy.

There are four striking actions that define the maritime security phase of JCG as initiated by Abe: JCG’s institutional reforms; the utilization of official development assistance (ODA) to support coast guard organizations in Southeast Asia; Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)-sponsored education and training; and the utilization of a mini-lateral approach to strategize Abe’s coast guard diplomacy.


The JCG’s institutional reforms are defined in terms of its annual budget increase and the change in the customary means of selecting its commandant. Moreover, the JCG has been given a seat in the annual cabinet deliberation to discuss the ways to address and improve maritime security domestically and internationally.

Secondly, Abe is the first Japanese prime minister to use ODA to provide coast guard vessels and capacity building to Southeast Asian countries. This arrangement has not only improved the capability of these coast guard organizations; it has also boosted the trust and cooperation of these countries vis-a-vis Japan.

Thirdly, Japan has been building a network of officers in the region who receive the same indoctrination and education in their respective roles as its coast guard officials.

Lastly, Abe has “mini-laterally” pushed for maritime security through the revitalization of coast guard diplomacy. Japan’s utilization of coast guard ships has strengthened deeper cooperation since military action is not something that Tokyo and Southeast Asia will choose as an option.

The use of JICA funds can best justify why Abe has employed JCG as an instrument for Japan’s maritime diplomacy. There are three plausible reasons behind such a claim.

First, Japan’s pacifist constitution restricts many areas of defense cooperation. However, it does not prohibit Tokyo from providing coast guard vessels to other countries using ODA. Relatedly, it is easier for Abe to justify to the Japanese public that the coast guard vessels that they are funding are needed to support the safety and security of Japan’s trade.

Second, the long-established cooperation of the JCG with Southeast Asia in the context of maritime safety, marine environmental protection, and maritime law enforcement, provides the most robust foundation for maritime cooperation. The recipient Southeast Asian countries trust that Abe’s coast guard initiatives have no hidden agenda and that the maritime order they are encouraged to support is for the benefit of the entire region.

The third reason is that strengthening coast guard cooperation has other benefits beyond security. It addresses significant concerns of the region like search and rescue, pollution prevention, counter piracy operations, and the safety of life and property at sea.

The JCG’s role in Southeast Asia has genuinely evolved. From a mere agency which constructs lighthouses, conducts the hydrographic surveys in relation to cleaning oil spills, and trains others in maritime law enforcement to prevent piracy, the JCG has become a diplomatic tool for Japan to strengthen its cooperation with its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Without a doubt, Abe is now galvanizing coast guard diplomacy to define maritime security. However, it should not be interpreted as a confrontational challenge against China’s assertive behavior. Rather, it is an indirect strategy to set the norm in the region that maritime order can better be maintained through coast guard cooperation and not through military provocation.

The views expressed in this article are his own. Action for Economic Reforms has a collaboration with Filipino scholars under GRIPS.


Jay Tristan Tariela is a commissioned officer of the Philippine Coast Guard with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and a Japan International Cooperation Agency scholar at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) under the GRIPS Global Governance (G-cube) Program in Tokyo.