Japan has made a radical shift in its oceans policy to concentrate on national security instead of economic development as maritime tensions with China rise.
The country’s latest “basic plan on ocean policy”, updated every five years, plays down hydrocarbon exploration in favour of improved radar coverage, satellite surveillance and measures to protect uninhabited islands.
While the strategy avoids any mention of China, analysts said it reflected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s personal desire to make protection of Japanese territory a central goal for every department of government.
“With the maritime situation becoming even more serious recently, the government must act as one to preserve open access to the oceans, and hold fast to our territorial waters and maritime rights,” said Mr Abe, before a cabinet decision adopting the policy.
Japan has territorial disputes with all of its neighbours: over the Kuril islands with Russia; with South Korea over islets known as Dokdo or Takeshima; and with China over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands.
Although Japan’s relations with China are on the upswing, Chinese vessels still regularly enter waters around the Japanese-administered islands, and Tokyo fears the growth of Beijing’s naval power.
“This is the first time that the oceans policy has explicitly referred to maritime security,” said Tomohiko Tsunoda, senior research fellow in ocean policy studies at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.
The oceans policy is not a defence document but a wider statement about how Japan will manage waters around the archipelago. In the latest edition, maritime conservation and exploration for methane hydrates are pushed into the background by security concerns.
It calls on Japan’s coastguard and defence ministry to develop a united information system for “maritime domain awareness” to detect intruding foreign vessels, illegal fishing and track ballistic missiles such as those tested by North Korea.
That reflects concerns about “grey zone” attacks where a state uses coastguard or fishing vessels to intrude and dispute a rival’s control over its territorial waters. China and Japan have built ever larger coastguard vessels that outsize many warships.
The strategy directs resources to support Japan’s many sparsely populated or uninhabited outlying islands. Strategists in Tokyo fear that uninhabited islands, such as the Senkaku or Diaoyu, are particularly vulnerable to sudden intrusion by a rival.
Economic policies, such as fisheries management, offshore wind power and exploration for underwater gas remain part of the strategy, as do conservation initiatives to tackle microplastics.
It also seeks to establish Japan as a player in the Arctic region, with retreating sea ice opening up the possibility of a Northeast Passage to Europe. Japan will consider acquiring an icebreaker for Arctic research. The strategy also refers to Japanese companies buying gas from the Yamal project in north-west Siberia.