March 18, 2024No Comments

Japan’s OSA: Balancing Security and Stability in the Indo-Pacific

*Authors: Southeast Asia and Oceania Team


Amid escalating tensions in the Indo-Pacific region, exacerbated by assertive Chinese actions, in April 2023, Japan declared a new cooperation framework—Official Security Aid (OSA). Positioned as a strategic departure from its longstanding Official Development Aid (ODA) framework, the OSA marks Japan's commitment to strengthening the armed forces of like-minded nations. This move reflects Japan's response to the evolving security landscape, characterized by Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea (SCS) and other geopolitical challenges.

From ODA to OSA

For decades, Japan stood as a bastion of ODA, considered as the main reliable partner for Southeast Asian nations. Its aid is granted under a request-based system and reflects a commitment to regional stability via non-military means.In the postwar era, Japan utilized development cooperation to establish relations with neighboring countries and subsequently to support the expansion of Japanese businesses in Asia. It played a role in the transition from socialist regimes and, amid China's rise, contributed to the development of legal systems and the consolidation of democracies.

The OSA, however, underscores Japan's proactive stance in gaining a more dominant role in the region, marking its first attempt in the postwar era, in which this country seeks to directly enhance the capabilities of foreign military forces. Under the OSA, Japan aims to provide not only equipment and supplies, but also support for infrastructure development to the military forces of like-minded countries, thereby bolstering their security capabilities.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's 2022 Shangri-La Dialogue address marked a pivotal moment in this new approach, with an announcement on doubling Japan's defense spending, and on the necessity in a departure from Japan's traditional post-war foreign policy, primarily centered on economic contributions. Japan's move towards OSA fits with its long-standing role as a vital ally for Southeast Asia in maritime security, especially during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's leadership.

The realization of OSA materialized around the Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) 50th anniversary, culminating in a Joint Vision Statement and an implementation plan which emphasized maritime security cooperation. Subsequently, Japan extended its security assistance totaling $13 million to Bangladesh, Fiji, Malaysia, and the Philippines, demonstrating a commitment to fostering stability beyond its borders.

Furthermore, Japan’s International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is set to play a pivotal role in providing maritime security support to Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. JICA's plan encompasses capacity-building initiatives and the provision of patrol boats, radar systems, and drones. This comprehensive support seeks to address the security needs of nations grappling with regional power dynamics. This move signifies Japan’s intent to forge a broader international coalition, marking a strategic shift in its diplomatic and security engagements.

Strategic Gains

Amid the delicate balancing acts between superpowers, the OSA offers Southeast Asian claimant states an appealing prospect. With territorial disputes and threats from China in the SCS, Japan’s commitment to enhancing defense capabilities might seem to aim to deter Chinese assertiveness.

In this context, and following the ASEAN-Japan Commemorative Summit, Japan has elevated relations with Vietnamand Malaysia to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, and a Security Assistance agreement, including maritime equipment provision, was signed with Malaysia. Additionally, although not a claimant state, Japan plans to build a patrol vessel for the Indonesian Coast Guard. Moreover, coastal surveillance radars will be granted to the Philippines, with discussions on reciprocal troop access and joint military exercises. Japan and the Philippines are also working towards a trilateral alliance involving the US. As Japan has its own territorial dispute with China over its southern islands, the OSA aligns with its ambitions to ensure a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and secure regional supply chain resilience.

Source: AkinoriMatsui "World flags" -

Japan also might envision the OSA as a means to reduce Southeast Asian countries' dependence on China. As the Belt and Road Initiative remains a significant diplomatic tool, the OSA introduces new areas of cooperation. For Bangladesh, for instance, which heavily relies on Chinese weaponry (70%), the OSA offers an opportunity to diversify suppliers and mitigate risks associated with the quality of Chinese-made military equipment.

Balancing security and stability

In his address at the Hiroshima G7 Summit in 2023, PM Kishida emphasized the potential parallels between the current situation in Ukraine and future challenges in East Asia. Observing global instability stemming from the Ukraine war, the rise of China, US-China tensions, and the Israel-Hamas War, Japan’s proactive foreign policy aims to foster deterrence and regional security. This change signifies a departure from its conventional stance of following US priorities by shifting towards a Japan-led multilateral security collaboration. It should be asked whether this securitization led to more, or less stability in the region.

While Japan's emphasis on maritime security and support to like-minded Indo-Pacific countries aligns with countering China's assertiveness, extending OSA to the military capabilities of developing countries introduces complexities.

The potential reactions from ASEAN nations, particularly considering their neutrality and non-alignment strive, could lead to heightened tensions and disrupt the delicate balance in the ongoing superpower competition. Moreover, concerns over an arms race in the region emerge; due to ASEAN countries' diverse capabilities and stances in the superpower competition, providing security assistance to certain members might increase tension in the region and undermine the current multilateral system. 

The pursuit of a competitive armament approach, rather than creating a secure environment, may contribute to heightened tension, prompting a more assertive Chinese stance and a Chinese armament of its allies in the region. Furthermore, given China’s extensive arms sales to the region, and its lenient restrictions on arms exports, it is essential to question whether Japan's OSA will genuinely serve as an effective countermeasure to China.


Japan's adoption of OSA signifies a proactive response to regional challenges posed by assertive Chinese actions. While enhancing defense capabilities for like-minded developing countries brings strategic gains, potential reactions from ASEAN, fears of an arms race, divisions, and China's extensive influence, warrant cautious consideration. As Japan assumes a broader international role, the delicate balance between security and stability in the Indo-Pacific calls for careful navigation and strategic planning to mitigate potential negative repercussions of such security related initiatives.

*Views expressed in the article belong to the author and do not represent any organization or its affiliates.

July 18, 2022No Comments

Shinzo Abe’s Legacy in the U.S.-China Competition

Author: Francesco Cirillo.

The Period of Shinzō Abe, who was assassinated on July 8, 2022, profoundly changed Japan's role in the Indo-Pacific chessboard and in the competition between the United States and the People's Republic of China. During the Abe years, foreign policy has put Chinese relations on two parallel and separate rails. The First, related to trade relations, focused on pragmatic cooperation aimed at rebuilding Sino-Japanese relations. The Second track, on the other hand, focusing mainly on international security issues, aimed to strengthen Japan's war potential to counter China's assertive action in several key East Asian areas, such as the East China Sea and the Senkaku Islands. 

Another key point of Abe's legacy in Japanese foreign policy has been Tokyo's role in bringing the Taiwan dossier to Washington's attention. After stepping down as prime minister, Abe had stated that Taiwan's security was an integral and fundamental part of Japan's national security. In addition, Abe had criticized Washington's strategic ambiguity and that the latter needed to engage in defending Taipei. In fact, the former Japanese premier was seen, by the Taiwanese leadership, as a close ally of Taiwan and strong supporter of the de facto sovereignty of the Formosa Island.

In recent years there has always been talk about what imprint Abe would leave on Japanese politics both domestically and on the international chessboard. According to several analysts, the real political testament that Abe leaves to Japan was the change in his military policy and the role of Japanese defense as an instrument of international-political projection. His vision of an autonomous Japan in its defensive capabilities was only possible with a program of rearmament of Japan's self-defense forces and in an attempt to bring to fruition Japan's constitutional reform on the thorny issue of Article 9 of Japan's constitutional charter. 

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Thanks to Abe's policies, Japan's role, with Washington's support, has seen consolidation in the Indo-Pacific region with the aim of countering Beijing's geo-economic rise. The current name of Indo-Pacific was coined back in 2007 by Shinzō Abe himself, who with foresight understood that the hegemonic clash would take place between Beijing and Washington in the Pacific. To date, the legacy in Abe's foreign policy consists of the process of returning Tokyo's defense policies to normalcy and greater Japanese engagement in the Indo-Pacific with the consolidation of historic alliances with Australia and India. 

The demise of Japan's longest-serving prime minister in the post-1945 period leaves a heavy burden but a solid foundation for his successors to be able to continue the work of policy reform on Japan's military affairs even in light of the recent state of competition in which the United States and the People's Republic of China find themselves and the sensitive Taiwan dossier, which for Tokyo falls under as an affair related to Japan's national security. One has always wondered what Abe's legacy was; to date, his main political achievement is the radical change of thebasis of Japan's foreign policy and its defense policy with the ultimate goal of deleting Article 9 from the current constitution, a legacy of military defeat in World War II.

May 5, 20212 Comments

The Book of Five Rings: The Japanese Art of Becoming Better Individuals

Marco Verrocchio and Javier Olaechea Lázaro.

The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, alongside Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, is one of main masterpieces in strategic studies. Not only can it be considered as a manual for leaders in the military and private sectors, but it can also serve as a way for self-development and success in daily life. Encompassing five books on spiritual symbols from Buddhist culture, the combination of Mushashi’s martial arts and his literary skills is a tremendous inspiration for us all.  

Historical setting

The end of the Momoyama Period and the beginning of the Edo, when Musashi lived and wrote the Book of Five Rings, was an age of political, religious and social turmoil. An age that started with the Warring State period and culminated with the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in the 1603. The main actors of this era were the Daimyō , warlords who fought each other to control the country. Initially, the Daimyō were open to new trade routes, especially with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1543 and the arrival of Christianity through the missionaries. Soon, these improvements brought technical development such as the arquebuses and printing. Thanks to these, the Daimyō were able to increasingly focus on military campaigns meant to control Buddhists and Shintoist religious institutions, as well as merchants. This resulted into urbanisation of civic society, with Samurai, merchants, and bureaucrats settled around local warlords' fortified castles, and farmers gathered in small villages in the countryside. 

Other than creating a strict hierarchy of social classes, the Samurai class benefited from great privileges serving under a Daimyō. Samurai became so relevant that many of them were able to gain political and military power, overthrowing members of upper classes. War amongst the Daimyō continued in the last decade of the XVI century, especially after failed attempts to invade Korea in 1592 and 1597. The Warring Period ended only with the preeminence of Tokugawa Ieyasu. After defeating opposing Daimyō at Sekigahara, he established the Shogunate in 1603. The Edo period began. This is known as an era marked by Japan's isolationist foreign policy, which lasted for 214 years. The missionaries were ousted and Christianity was prohibited. With the unification of Japan, firm social hierarchy was ultimately consolidated.

The role of the Samurai changed too. The latter increasingly transitioned from warriors to courtiers, bureaucrats, and administrators. Keen to preserve their glorious past from the Warring Period, Samurai-led martial arts schools flourished all over the country and many Samurai started to write novels and manuals to preserve and pass down their precious cultural heritage. The famous Bushido written by Yamaga Soko (1622-1685) and the Book of Five Rings of Miyamoto Musashi are examples of this period. 

Author setting

Little is known of his early life. Miyamoto Musashi was born around 1584 in the Harima province, situated in the south-west part of Japan. His father, Hirata Munisai, was a Samurai but Musashi lived his early years with his uncle, a clergyman, studying Confucianism and Buddhism. Three years later, Musashi left his village, fighting several Samurai in order to be accepted under the patronage of a Daimyō. At the age of 25, Musashi established a school of martial arts in Edo, the capital of the Shogunate. 

Musashi explored other arts, such as poetry, acting, calligraphy, and tea ceremony. He established the school of martial arts ``two skies in one” (Niten Ichi-ryu), teaching the use of two swords. In 1643, he exiled himself to a mountain with the aim to write the Book of Five Rings. He died aged 62 years old two years later. 

Insights and Lessons for our Times

From its purely formal conception, the book describes a series of stages designed to guide us along the path of personal growth in any field where we seek to develop. Musashi divides the book into an introduction presenting himself and five chapters, or rings, from which we chose the three most relevant in relation to our time:

Earth Manuscript: the importance of military strategy, or the "Way of strategy", sets out the spirit and moral requirements for understanding this domain. As the great swordsman explains, for any challenge we may be faced with, very few (if any) require the mastering of only one single skill. To master any field, it is argued, it is important to understand and master all the constituent parts of that peculiar field. 

Water Manuscript: methods to achieve victory through certain techniques to master body and arms correctly. Focus is allocated particularly on the importance of “looking in” and “looking out”, as one seeks to maximise strategy. Within this context, we learn about the damaging nature of tunnel vision and blind spot. This is given by narrow approaches that push us to consider a limited number of solutions vis-à-vis challenges instead of valuing alternative course of action.

Fire Manuscript: describes techniques that have to do with different situations such as the environment where the fight is taking place, how to handle the mood of the opponent or what attitudes are to be adopted according to the situation. The most valuable word here is “timing”. The timing to decide when to fight or, conversely, when not to fight. Musashi teaches us to think deeply about our preparedness to fight life-battles. He explains how there is no shame in admitting we are not ready to overcome challenges. There is instead shame in knowing we are not ready and still convince ourselves we can fight and win. Whilst self-confidence remains key, right timing is even more important.

In general, this piece is about the type of honour and impeccable conduct that coexist with bushido[1]. One could argue that its relevance to today's time is minimal. And yet, whilst focus is mostly military, the Book of the Five Rings can actually be applied to other, if not all, ethical and psychological dimensions that feature adversarial competition.

In truth, we claim it promotes effort and search for self-improvement through discipline, which greatly resonates to the kind of lessons we are to internalise in our daily lives.

[1]  It is a term translated as "the way of the warrior", in the Japanese tradition. It is a strict and particular code of ethics to which many samurai (or bushi) gave their lives, demanding loyalty and honour until death.