They are Islanders: Japan in Oceania

As global interest in Oceania grows, Japan is actively looking to deepen its ties with Pacific Island Countries (PICs).

Japan has a long history of engagement in Oceania; Japanese Prime Minister Abe has said that Japan and the PICs share “an expansive oceanic identity.” However, Japan’s current, heightened interest in Oceania is a relatively recent development. As Indo-Pacific neighbors, Japan and the PICs share a number of common interests. Japan and the PICs are trade partners; they face common climate challenges; and Oceania is strategically important to Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIPS). With more major powers now paying attention to Oceania, Japan is leaning on its traditional ties to the PICs to protect national interests and secure Japan’s role as a regional leader.

The following article will explore Japan’s historical role in Oceania, its contemporary interests, and its efforts to engage the region.

Japan’s Historical Role in Oceania

Following WWI, the Empire of Japan held a League of Nations mandate over a number of Central Pacific island groups. Under the mandate, Japan administered the Carolines, Marshalls, Marianas (except for Guam), and the Pelew Group – island groups previously held by Imperial Germany. Today, these islands are part of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Palau.

During WWII, the Pacific Island region served as the frontline of the Pacific Theater. By 1943, Imperial Japan’s reach extended as far East as the Gilbert Islands (present-day Kiribati) and as far South as Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.

In the post-war period, Japan has supplied a great deal of economic assistance to the PICs; however, as explained in a recent report by former Vice Minister of Defense for International Affairs, Hideshi Tokuchi, “the Japanese had not paid close attention to the region until recently.”

Increasing Regional Engagement

Multilateral Engagement

The first uptick in Japan’s regional engagement came in the late 1990s. Japan and the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) states came together in 1996 to establish the Pacific Island Centre, an international organization that aims to foster sustainable economic development through the promotion of trade, investment and tourism between Japan and the PICs. Additionally, in 1997, Japan and the PIF established the Pacific Island Leaders Meeting (PALM).

Japan hosts a summit-level meeting every three years; the meetings include the leaders of Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Republic of Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. In the most recent meeting, PALM8, New Caledonia and French Polynesia participated as regions.

Today, opportunities like the PALM process are more important to Japan than ever. These multilateral summits are an opportunity to engage regional partners on shared Pacific problems like resource management and climate change; to balance against China’s growing influence in the region; and to bolster Japan’s status both as a regional partner and as a regional power.

PALM8, themed “We are Islanders ­– Partnership Towards Prosperous, Free and Open Pacific Results,” stressed the importance of upholding maritime order and sustainable ocean management, as well as the need for resilient and sustainable development. Key points from PALM8 can be found here.

Climate Cooperation

When talking about disaster risk reduction and resilient development, Japan is a relatively unique partner for the PICs because, unlike other Pacific powers (namely the United States and Australia), Japan is willing to put climate change up front and center.

For example, in 2018 the Governments of Japan and Samoa founded the Pacific Climate Change Centre (PCCC) – a regional research center housed in Apia, Samoa. The PCCC is intended to:

Deliver capacity development programmes in adaptation, mitigation, climate services and project development. It will promote and foster applied research, drive innovation and build capacity in these areas[;]

Improve the flow of practical information between met services, climate practitioners, policy makers, researchers, scientists and those implementing policies, programmes and projects[;]

Provide space for visiting researchers and experts to work from the PCCC and work directly in providing support to and for the benefit of Pacific island countries and territories[; and]

Bring together partners to find innovative solutions to the challenges that climate change presents.

The Centre is funded by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

Defense Cooperation

For the first time ever, Japan’s most recent defense policy, adopted in 2018, includes an explicit reference to increasing defense cooperation and exchange with PICs. The National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) for 2019 stated, “[w]ith island nations of the Pacific Ocean, Japan will promote port and airport visits by [Self Defense Forces (SDF)] as well as exchanges and cooperation that utilize capabilities and characteristics of each service of SDF.”

Defense engagement efforts are not entirely new. As noted in Tokuchi’s report, Japan’s Naval forces already participate in the US Pacific Fleet’s Pacific Partnership Program; Japan’s Ministry of Defense (MOD) provides capacity building assistance to PNG; Fiji participated in MOD’s 2018 Tokyo Defense Forum; and in 2018 the Nippon Foundation, a Tokyo-based nonprofit, provided a number of Coast Guard patrol boats to Palau.

Nevertheless, the explicit mention of PICs in the NDPG is significant and is a further demonstration of how Japan is seeking to balance against China’s growing Pacific power.

Japanese Aid to Oceania

Since 2011, Japan has provided $1.10B (US) in aid to Oceania. $929.98M (US) – 84.2% – of that aid has been given in grants. Japan maintains diplomatic relations with and provides aid to the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. The top five recipients of Japanese aid have been Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Samoa, and Tonga. Aid to these countries accounted for 66% of all aid given since 2011.

Potential for Cooperation

The United States should view Japan’s interest in Oceania as an opportunity for increased cooperation. As international interest in the region grows, working together with Japan to engage PICs through defense cooperation efforts or climate security cooperation projects seems like a win-win. It’s a chance to signal the US’s commitment to the broader Indo-Pacific; to bolster the US-Japan alliance; and to deepen US relations with our allies in Oceania .

Claire Huitt is a joint degree student at the University of Texas, pursuing her J.D. from Texas Law and her M.A. in Global Policy Studies from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Claire is a Brumley Next Generation Fellow for National Security Law with the Robert Strauss Center for International Law and Security and holds a Graduate Portfolio in Security Studies from the Clements Center for National Security. She has interned with the Department of State at U.S. Embassy Tokyo and the Department of Justice with the Office of International Affairs on the team for Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Claire graduated from Southern Methodist University and holds a B.A. in economics, political science, and public policy.

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