Japan, South Korea Boost Their African Presence

The rhetoric surrounding the diplomatic and military moves by the regional powers in the South China Sea continues to draw attention to the competing territorial claims. These sensationalist stories often advocate various singular sovereignty claims, while ignoring a complex, rich, history that points to much more diverse competition for the region’s waters, resources, and small islands.

As China begins to pressure its neighbors over what it views as valid claims to the South China Sea, much commentary has been directed at what the United States is going to do to support its regional allies. Many observers are solely focused on the highly visible freedom of navigation exercises, military training events, and government statements in response to these encroachments on the global commons. However, far away from the South China Sea a subtle story is unfolding.

The United States and its two major Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, have quietly stepped up their diplomatic cooperation on mutual issues in Eastern Africa. This engagement both with each other and with African partners has resulted in some interesting security developments that has gone largely unnoticed by observers. Arguably one of the most important and notable of these is Japan’s establishment of its only overseas military base since the Second World War in Djibouti, right alongside the only permanent location for U.S. military forces in Africa. Obviously this was not just a serendipitous real estate deal.

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Japan has multifaceted security concerns at stake in Africa. Since 2008, elements of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force have deployed in support of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Additionally, since 2009, ships of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force participated in multinational anti-piracy missions off the coast of Somalia.

Considering that Japan is the second-largest monetary contributor to United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions, these deployments are hardly surprising. But Japan’s participation in missions such as anti-piracy patrols and peacekeeping in a country torn by civil war shows a different level of resolve than that previously demonstrated by Japanese governments.

These African deployments play a role in a larger dynamic effort by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to “normalize” Japanese military activities. They serve to test Abe’s military normalization policy under a UN and multilateral construct while focusing on the uncontroversial doctrine of population security, a pillar of Japanese security policy.  However, it seems a long-term implied goal is a gradual evolution towards developing a more muscular military capability for use closer to home.

South Korea, America’s other major Asian ally, has also increased its activities in Africa, particularly East Africa, in recent years. In addition to military operations, South Korea has opened new embassies in the region, such as in Kampala, Uganda in 2011, following a 17-year diplomatic absence. South Korea has a relatively robust military presence in the region, so further diplomatic investment is not surprising.

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