Protecting Japan's 'beautiful seas'

JAPAN'S new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, proclaiming that the country's "beautiful seas" are under threat, has mooted the dispatch of decommissioned warships to bolster Japan's Coast Guard in daily standoffs with China over the Senkakus.

Pundits talk up China's century of humiliation by superior Western naval forces, but Japan's own history of facing and - importantly - overcoming maritime threats should not be forgotten.

Recently, I was invited to lecture at the National Defence Academy (NDA) of Japan near Yokosuka, a naval base in Kanagawa Prefecture, just outside Tokyo.

Lunching with my hosts in a clifftop restaurant offering spectacular ocean views, I was struck also by the strategic implications: the soaring cliffs in the surrounding areas used to host massive gun emplacements protecting the maritime approaches to Tokyo Bay.

Visitors to Yokosuka and its environs cannot fail to notice how maritime challenges are part of the national psyche. The nearby little fishing villages, Uraga and Kurihama, are closely associated with the traumatic strategic shock of the late Edo era: the arrival of the kuro fune (literally, black ships) under US Navy commodore Matthew Perry.

He had, at gunpoint, demanded that the Tokugawa Shogunate open Japan to foreign trade. From this unwelcome American maritime incursion, to China's naval assertions today, maintaining security of its maritime domain has shaped modern Japan's strategic context as an island nation.

If Perry's black ships proved to be a direct threat to Japan's survival, it is another naval vessel also commemorated in Yokosuka that heralded Japan's stunning modernisation and overcoming of its maritime weaknesses.

The warship in question, Mikasa, preserved in immaculate order complete with detailed exhibits, was the flagship of famed Japanese Admiral Togo Heihachiro who decimated the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima Strait in 1905.

This was the first defeat inflicted by an Asian power on a European one, and effectively neutralised Russian naval power in the Far East. Japan consequently had a freer hand with its own Western-style imperial expansion into Korea and Manchuria.

The Mikasa exhibition proudly recounts a saying, "Nelson in the West, Togo in the East", effectively placing Japanese maritime success on the same standing with the legendary British victory at Trafalgar. Japan's naval superiority in the region remained until it was shattered by the US Navy in World War II.

The renamed Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) re-emerged under US tutelage in the Cold War as the most capable naval force in the Western Pacific after the US 7th Fleet, which operates out of Yokosuka, together with the JMSDF.

Originally designed to help the US ensure sea lanes of communication and thwart Soviet naval threats, the JMSDF is now coming to terms with China's rising naval might.

Beijing periodically dispatches warships to the Pacific Ocean, transiting through the strategic Miyako Strait off Japan's Okinawa island chain.

Hence, my NDA hosts recommended that no visit to Yokosuka is complete without a cruise of the naval port for a more contemporary insight into Japanese naval capabilities.

The innocuously-named sightseeing vessel, Sea Friend, that ferries camera-toting Japanese tourists around, belies the staggering array of lethal maritime power on display in the docks.

Several state-of-the-art billion-dollar Aegis destroyers of the JMSDF were on show; large flat-top amphibious vessels; high-tech plastic hull minesweepers, and highly capable (and very stealthy) Japanese diesel electric submarines that Vietnam and Australia are said to consider purchasing.

The greatest prize of course was the USS George Washington, America's only forward-deployed aircraft carrier home-ported outside US territory. Fortunately for the tourists, it had recently returned from operations.

Yokosuka that day contained a significant concentration of naval power in the Pacific west of Hawaii. It underlined the fact that while China has been able to intimidate the Philippines and Vietnam in their respective maritime disputes, the Japanese are a different kettle of fish, possessing a highly trained and technologically-advanced naval force that has thankfully not yet been deployed over the Senkakus.

Modern Japan has a proud naval heritage, as the Mikasa museum at Yokosuka makes crystal clear to visitors.

This pedigree was achieved in part by a desire to overcome the intense maritime vulnerability the country felt after encountering the American black ships.

It is no coincidence that reform-minded Meiji Era Japan commissioned the greatest naval power at that time, Britain, to build and equip the Mikasa with the latest technologies and gun sights.

As new PM Abe now works to bolster the alliance with the leading naval service of today, greater inter-operability between the JMSDF and the US Navy will be a key focus. Japan is once again looking to address its historical sensitivity to maritime challenges, this time from China.

The author is Assistant Dean (Research) and Associate Professor of International Relations at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.