Japan Institute for National Fundamentals

Speaking out

Yoshihiko Yamada

【#320】Create Asia’s Marine Intelligence Sharing System

Yoshihiko Yamada / 2015.08.11 (Tue)

August 10, 2015

     The foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in Kuala Lumpur on Aug. 4 and issued a joint communique, saying they “remained seriously concerned” over China’s maritime activities to dominate the South China Sea, though refraining from naming China directly. In fact, pro-Beijing ASEAN member states such as Laos and Cambodia continue to serve as a “brake” to keep the 10-nation grouping from taking strong measures against China, a step pursued by Vietnam and the Philippines.
     On Aug. 5 when an ASEAN-China foreign ministerial meeting was held in Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, for its part, floated a 10-point proposal, including an early conclusion of a maritime code of conduct and the ensuring of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in accordance with international law, as an approach to resolve the disputes there. China thus aimed to ward off pressures from ASEAN countries. Further, the Chinese proposal incorporated a move to oppose intervention by outside powers—an explicit stance to stop ASEAN countries from joining hands with the United States.

Japan should play a core role in maritime cooperation
     China’s ultimate goal is the “restoration of the great Chinese nation” so that it will be able to dominate the whole of offshore seabed and fishery resources in Asia as it did during the Ming era, when it forced neighboring nations to be tributaries. Needless to say, such a maritime ambition of China will be unstoppable unless other Asian countries join forces.
     However, ASEAN is not a monolithic entity. It is no exaggeration to say Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam are hostile to one another in the South China Sea’s fishing grounds. Indonesia, for example, has blown up Vietnamese, Philippine and Chinese fishing vessels captured for poaching in its waters. In other words, the situation along their maritime borders remains so tense that even a minor incident could touch off serious hostilities. Against such a background, it is only Japan that is eligible to play a core role in easing the confrontations between and among Asian countries as it is trusted by most of them.
     For Japan, the sea lanes through the South China Sea are vital to maintain massive flows of goods to and from its key Southeast Asian trading partners, including Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam—there are no alternative maritime routes at all to reach them from Japan. As a country that relies so heavily on the South China Sea routes, Japan is obliged to help ensure the security of the South China Sea. To that end, it should spare no effort and energy to contribute to the peace of all the waters in Asia by sharing its experiences and expertise as a maritime nation with other Asian countries.

Use the piracy prevention framework as a model
     To formulate a viable conflict prevention system for Asian waters, the countries concerned in the region need to share information about maritime management. However, under the current circumstances, it is impossible to begin sharing such information because of security concern. As a practical solution, it is realistic for them to start off with horizontally sharing information on sea lane utilization, development of resources, environmental protection and fishing operations, among others.
     We have a good precedent—international piracy prevention. To be specific, it is the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), which came into force in 2006 at the initiative of Japan. ReCAAP now has many countries as contracting parties, including not only those in Asia but also Britain, the United States and other non-Asian states. They jointly operate the ReCAAP Information Sharing Center. Despite having not signed the agreement for internal reasons, Indonesia and Malaysia, too, always cooperate with the center.
     The piracy prevention framework can be a good model for setting up a common international system to deal with maritime issues. Now that China has already completed land reclamation on seven reefs in the South China Sea, the maritime peace of Asia would collapse if Japan did not act now.

Yoshihiko Yamada is Director of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, and Professor at Tokai University.