The Pacific and Not-So-Pacific Oceans

Posted January 3, 2008

Categories: Articles, Asia

The seas both divide and unite Japan and the United States. Caught between countering threat and promoting maritime cooperation, the two countries have worked together to build regional approaches to terrorism and piracy.

At the same time, however, they have pursued less inclusive strategies such as a missile defence system, joint military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a ‘Proliferation Security Initiative’ that has failed to attract support from China or, until very recently, South Korea.

While a new government in Seoul is promising greater coordination of policy with Tokyo and Washington, this potentially stronger trilateralism threatens to widen the divide between maritime powers in the region and the continental powerhouses, China and Russia.

Washington’s emphasis on threats coming from Asia was bolstered this week with the release of the Pentagon’s ‘Military Power of the People’s Republic of China’. “Culturally, emotionally, commercially, and militarily, our ties are with Europe,” observed Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) at a Mar. 6 conference on maritime security and the U.S.-Japan alliance. The seminar was co-sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, the Center for a New American Security, and the Ocean Policy Research Foundation.

“But in the future, we are likely to see a world in which the challenges to peace and stability come from the Pacific Rim. We know that North Korea has certain military capabilities, that they are developing additional systems that are threatening their neighbours. Today, most people are focused on missiles from North Korea. But they ignore that the Chinese have this and much, much, much more.”

As former National Security Council senior director of Asian Affairs Michael Green pointed out at the same gathering, “China’s announced military growth rate is 17.8 percent. Contrast that with Japan and Taiwan, which are flat. The People’s Liberation Army is developing niche capabilities. But this isn’t a call for panic. There are a lot of countervailing trends. For instance, there is a much more capable U.S.-Japanese alliance than 10 years ago.”

For some in Japan, China’s rise and particularly its investment in modernising its navy provide an impetus for a closer U.S.-Japanese alliance and an expansion of Japan’s naval capabilities. “Japan is proving its capability as a sea power,” related Taro Aso, former foreign minister in the Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe administrations, in his keynote speech. “Everyday, the world is learning afresh that together Japan and America can pacify the sea and stabilise the world to the benefit of everyone and to the detriment of none.” The two countries indeed have extensive military cooperation.

“Our two militaries conduct joint training exercises quite often,” Senator Inouye further explained. “Our officers study together. The ships in the Japanese inventory are the same type used in the U.S. military. Our ballistic missile defense and Aegis systems are identical. Our two countries have agreements that aircraft carriers can patrol the waters around Japan and visit and revisit Japanese ports. Our forces will be maintained in the Pacific in larger numbers. These can only be looked upon as serious preparations to maintain peace in the region.”

Despite this close maritime cooperation, some politicians in Japan see their constitution as a barrier to a full realisation of the military alliance. “Between the U.S. and Japan, we have a lot of very good cooperation in hardware, in technical exchanges in the field of defence,” pointed out Shunji Yanai, a judge of the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea. “But we need a legal framework. We have to review the interpretation of Article 9,” the clause of the Japanese constitution prohibiting the country from “the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

As Aso argued, “There is continued momentum for a revision to the Japanese constitution, which would enable Japan to exercise collective defense with its allies.” Polls of the Japanese public, however, indicate that a plurality remain skeptical about revising Article 9.

The oceans are not simply an arena for geopolitical rivalry. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, ratified by more than 150 countries though not the U.S., has been a cornerstone document in establishing common rules and regulations for the water that account for 70 percent of the planet and carry 90 percent of all international trade. The threat here does not come from any one country but from the burgeoning demographic and economic pressures coming from all countries. “Rapid population growth and economic development are placing a great burden on the seas,” pointed out Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation. “The infinite sea is turning into a finite sea.”

Sasakawa proposed concrete cooperation in the Malacca-Singapore Strait, where 94,000 vessels pass each year, many of them conveying oil from the Middle East. He called on the shipping industry to set up a voluntary fund to support a project on navigational safety and environmental conservation.

“We talk of the fight against piracy and terrorism at sea, the conflict over maritime resource development and use of sea areas, and the fight against the pollution of the seas,” he continued. “In reality, none of these problems can be solved by fighting, but through persistent and self-sacrificing collaboration for the benefit of the world as a whole, transcending the sovereignty of governments.”

For Koji Murata, a professor of international security studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, this cooperation boils down to three Es: energy, environment, and epidemics.

Through cooperation on these issues, Asian countries could mitigate the military alliance-building and military budget increases that are pushing the region toward a new continental versus maritime divide. Preventing environmental deterioration, promoting energy efficiency, and heading off epidemics like SARS and new strains of influenza: “these issues all come from ocean areas,” Murata argued.

At a time when a new cold war threatens — between the old geopolitical categories of the “Eurasian heartland” and the “rimland” that surrounds it — countries in Asia are discovering that what divides them, namely the oceans, can also bring them together. Common ground, in other words, can even be found at sea.

Inter Press Service, March 7, 2008

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