How Japan Steers East Asian Energy Markets

1. Japan’s unique geography determines the country’s energy policy. Japan can only be supplied with oil and gas by sea.

Japan is in a unique situation with regard to its energy policy. Japan has almost no domestic energy reserves. Due to the tectonic shifts of the Pacific plate, which extends directly under Japan, Japan has a high geothermal potential that can be used for energy production. However, it would take decades for Japan to replace fossil fuels with geothermal energy. This would create a significant bottleneck in primary energy supply. As a result, Japan would have to import most of its energy from abroad to meet its own energy needs. A fate shared by many East Asian countries. It is even more acute for Japan, as it does not have the lignite reserves of South Korea or China. In terms of energy, it relies on imported raw materials. For energy resources, Japan is dependent on international waterways.

The Strait of Malacca is essential for the fossil fuel energy supply of South Korea, Japan, and China. We have already mentioned fuel supply through the Strait of Malacca in more detail, emphasizing that the Strait of Malacca is a central point in international energy logistics.

2. Japan’s energy policy requires a competent navy to keep sea lanes free of pirates and protect the country from foreign adversaries that could cut Japan off from hydrocarbon imports. 

There are some parallels with Germany, which is also an industrial powerhouse. While Germany has significant domestic lignite reserves, it relies on energy imports from the Russian Federation, the North Sea, and energy imports from outside Europe. Japan, by comparison, is in an even more difficult situation with regard to energy imports than Germany.

This inevitably leads Japan to invest in an operational and seaworthy navy in order to assert its rights to raw materials. Japan itself benefits massively from Chinese economic growth. At the same time, Japan cannot be too dependent on China and needs a navy to keep options open. Japan’s strategic goal is to trade with the Western Pacific region and engage in foreign trade. Japan does this because, by virtue of being an island nation, it cannot procure all of its goods (and services) domestically. This also explains Japan’s recent turn toward the Indo-Pacific region and involvement in international trade networks such as RCEP.

And contrary to what many believe, Japan is made up of a multitude of islands stretching from Taiwan to the Russian Federation and Kamchatka. Again, we see the differences to Germany. While Germany is a land-based trading nation, Japan is exclusively maritime. Germany is surrounded by powerful countries by land, Japan is surrounded by powerful countries by sea. This inevitably makes Japan a maritime power par excellence. In comparison, Germany has changed from a land to a sea power at various times in its history. The history of the Hanseatic League is very instructive in this regard, as the German city-states played a key role in the international trade networks along the Baltic Sea. It should be noted, however, that historically Japan has had an excellent navy since the days when it had to repel the Mongol invasions. But unlike China, the sea was a protective barrier that halted the expansion of the Mongol Empire in the east. 

However, Japan can benefit enormously from a stable geopolitical order and was willing to be part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This makes sense, because just like Germany, Japan engages in maritime trade and exports its high-tech products to all countries. In the energy sector, Japan is also busy producing electric cars for the world market. In this area, Japan and Germany are in a neck-and-neck race for high-tech products. But unlike Germany, Japan is not a member of NATO. It may also explain Japan’s importance as a power broker in the Western Pacific. Of course, Japan must do its part to maintain this geopolitical order, but the economic benefits outweigh the political disadvantages.

In addition to Germany, Japan competes with some East Asian countries that are also involved in shaping the economic architecture of the 20th century with the United States, such as South Korea. South Korea has similar energy needs to Japan. Both Japan and South Korea are high-technology countries, which means that both countries have an interest in keeping the sea routes to East Asia open for international trade. Readily available energy supplies used for industrial production and export can ensure the prosperity of these countries. 

However, the two states are both targeting the same energy imports to feed their industries. This also explains South Korea’s interest in renewable energy. For good reason, South Korea tries to exclude nuclear power from its energy mix.

3. China’s enormous growth is also spurring other East Asian countries such as Japan. China has now achieved a dominant position in the East Asian energy industry.

China’s rise as the number one energy importer poses enormous challenges for all other East Asian states. Other East Asian states, including Japan and South Korea, are not only competing with each other, but also with China. 

China’s growth is accompanied by a growing hunger for energy, as its economic growth is viewed critically by other East Asian industrialized countries. The rise of China is unique, and China will sooner or later take the lead in East Asia. The energy trade in oil and gas is mainly driven by the Chinese economy. And without China, there would not be such strong growth in other East Asian countries.

China’s growth therefore means that other countries bordering China are also standing tall economically. This includes Vietnam. Japan is increasingly benefiting from China’s growth, but also from U.S. military protection as a guarantor of trade stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

However, as more and more energy has to be shipped to East Asia by international sea, Japan is under competitive pressure in terms of volume. This is just one of the reasons why Japan has expressed interest in Russian liquefied natural gas from northern Siberia to become less dependent on international energy supplies by sea. We have discussed this issue in more detail in another article on Russian energy policy.

4. The move away from nuclear power as a result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster has not yet led to a long-term alternative energy policy. Nuclear power plants continue to be used for energy production.

Nuclear energy was seen by the Japan and, by and large, by the Japanese people as the ideal source of energy to meet Japan’s long-term energy needs, but more importantly, nuclear energy ensured Japan’s energy security from a geostrategic and military perspective.

Nuclear power is a difficult issue in Japan due to the aforementioned tectonic plate shifts that cause earthquakes and tsunamis, as many of the nuclear power plants were built near the coast, including Fukushima. For a long time, the Japanese government underestimated the risk of environmental disasters associated with the continued operation of nuclear power plants.

At this point, it should be mentioned that the corporate structure of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, which is responsible for operating the Fukushima nuclear power plant, is much more complex than it appears at first glance. Electricity was generated at the Fukushima site long before the failure of the Fukushima power plant. The disaster occurred in March 2011 and TEPCO took the necessary measures to repair the damage to the reactor.

Since March 2011, electricity generation from nuclear power plants has been under scrutiny in Japan, but it is not being phased out completely. Instead, the Japanese energy industry is trying to slowly switch to renewable energies.

5. Phasing out nuclear power is only possible in the long term. The possibilities for using renewable energies other than geothermal energy are limited. At the same time, China will increase its share in the East Asian energy sector.

But moving away from nuclear power will not solve Japan’s biggest problem, which is the country’s lack of natural and energy resources. It is foreseeable that China will have a growing share in East Asia’s energy supply.

Given past historical developments, it is unlikely that Japan will recognize China’s supremacy in the East Asian economic order and in the East Asian energy sector, which will most likely lead it to reach out to the United States and its East Asian allies. Of course, it would be desirable for Japan to reach out to China, if only from an energy perspective, because China will determine the market.

China will increasingly determine the market for the entire East Asian region for energy, as the new Silk Road will supply energy directly from the new port of Gwadar via northern Pakistan to the Chinese province of Xinjiang. This will supply China’s western provinces with oil and natural gas, and the delivery route will be much shorter. China’s share of the global energy market is increasing significantly and will potentially limit Japan’s ability to make energy trade decisions.

6. Conclusion: Japan must find alternative energy sources or continue to use nuclear energy. In any case, Japan is a maritime power that has access to the world’s oceans. 

André Pertuzio aptly expressed in an article published by the Paris Academy of Geopolitics that increasing imports of liquefied natural gas to Japan is not a long-term solution to Japan’s energy deficit.

Concluding remarks on the Fukushima nuclear disaster:

7. Japan must deal with the long-term damage of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Fukushima entails extremely high costs that are likely to be disproportionate to the benefits of nuclear power.

Japan will continue to fight fiercely against the consequences of the Fukushima aftermath in the years to come. Originally, it was believed that the damage caused by the nuclear disaster was relatively limited, but today, much of the radioactively contaminated water that comes into contact with the radioactive waste inside the plant flows into the Pacific Ocean. So the only solution is to contaminate and protect the entire site, which costs a lot of money. Radioactively contaminated water must be pumped out and stored in large drums. Storing the barrels also costs vast sums, and this will go on forever. Japan has thus unintentionally become the first, but certainly not the last, country in the 21st century to suffer the consequences of nuclear power plant failure.

8. References (in French):

L’ACROnique de Fukushima, Quelle politique énergétique pour le Japon ?, 2017:

André Pertuzio, Académie de Géopolitique de Paris, La Problématique énergétique du Japon et de la région Asie Pacifique, 2016:

Bernard Laponche, Le Journal de l’Énergie, L’évolution du système énergétique du Japon en suite à la catastrophe de Fukushima, 2014 :

Forum Nucléaire, L’énergie nucléaire au Japon:

Ministère de l’Économie et des Finances, France, Le mix énergétique du Japon – situation actuelle et perspectives, 2018 :

Ministère de l’Économie et des Finances, France, Libéralisation et évolution du marché du gaz au Japon, 2017 :

Total Foundation, Planète Energies, Le Japon et l’énergie, 2017 :

Many thanks for the shared interest in the energy world!

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