The Importance of Maritime Security


Attention is turning toward the East Asia Summit that will take place in November, with the leaders of the United States and Russia in attendance. Soon after taking office, Japan’s new prime minister Noda Yoshihiko announced that he intended to shelve the government’s East Asian Community initiative. Now he is saying that he will use the East Asia Summit to deliver proposals of his own on maritime security in the South China Sea.

The shelved East Asian Community initiative is presumably the plan formerly espoused by Hatoyama Yukio during his time as prime minister. He outlined his ideas at the APEC leaders’ summit in November 2009, suggesting that the European model could be successfully applied to East Asia: “The central idea of my ‘East Asian community’ initiative is based upon reconciliation and cooperation in Europe.” He went on to say: “I propose that countries sharing a common vision promote cooperation in various fields. This would be based on the principle of ‘open regional cooperation.’ Through this, our region would develop a multi-layered network of functional communities.” Hatoyama also adhered to the position that an East Asian Community centered on the ASEAN+3 would be built on the accumulated network of function-based cooperative relationships that had been Japan’s established policy in the past. It is unlikely that Noda intends to put this on ice too.

Avoiding Problems Related to Sovereignty and Nationalism

In some ways, Noda’s new maritime security initiative seems to share an affinity with the “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” and “value-oriented diplomacy” policies of earlier administrations, which were also conceived with China in mind. But from another perspective, it is possible to see the new initiative as one part of a number of highly important, substantive cooperative relationships—including economy and trade. Guaranteeing maritime security and ensuring that the region’s cooperative relationships are not hindered by problems of sovereignty and nationalism arising from sudden clashes at sea will be vital for cooperation in East Asia, given the emphasis on economic issues in the region.

Of course, maritime issues are extremely important for the countries on China’s periphery. With the rise of China, we are already seeing a tendency for tensions between China and its neighbors to involve the sea, encompassing as it does issues of territory and sovereignty, national security, resources, and historical tensions. This tendency will only continue in the years to come. As a continental power, China seems to regard the ocean—from its offshore territorial waters through its Exclusive Economic Zone and out to the continental shelf—in much the same way as it regards land. This understanding may well be different from that of maritime nations in the region. This means that, along with discussing substantive measures to safeguard maritime security, it is vital for the nations of the region, including China, to be aware of the differing interpretations of maritime rules that exist between them and work together to arrive at a shared understanding.

Four Reasons for the Proposal

Broadly speaking, I believe that the necessary steps on maritime issues, including the proposals to be delivered at the East Asia Summit in November, can be categorized into four areas. First, the countries of the region need to work together to implement substantive measures to guarantee maritime security. This will include robust defense and vigilance measures. Second, the region needs to build a framework for responding to sudden clashes and flare-ups at sea. This framework will need to include China. Third, there needs to be a dialogue on legal interpretations of the rules outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which should be the central framework for regional legislation on maritime matters. Fourth, the nations of the region, including China, will need to build a framework for ongoing, persistent maritime cooperation efforts, including mutual notification in the event of accidents and disasters at sea. Only if the initiative leads to a gradual accumulation of achievements along these lines, and only if Japan remains fully involved, will Noda’s proposals develop into something truly significant. (October 14, 2011)

(Originally written in Japanese.)

diplomacy Japan East Asia Summit China Noda Yoshihiko Maritime security EAS APEC East Asian Community initiative Hatoyama Yukio ASEAN+3 nationalism EEZ Kawashima Shin