China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning (C) takes part in a military drill of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the western Pacific Ocean, April 18, 2018.
The 8th Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting (PALM 8) will be held in Fukushima, Japan, in May 18 and 19 of this year. It will be hosted by the Japanese government and co-chaired by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi of Samoa. Maritime security will be a likely agenda item. Why?
In 2017 I was invited to attend two study groups made up of members of the Japanese Parliament—one on Pacific Islands issues and the other on ocean policy issues. My lectures focused on the issue of maritime security in the Pacific Islands with a specific perspective on Chinese expansion in this region.
The Parliament members were keen to learn about the current maritime security issues of Pacific Island Countries (PICs) and surprisingly took action immediately. In June they submitted a letter of request regarding PALM 8 to Finance Minister Taro Aso and the Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. Their letter of request coincided with development of the government’s next basic ocean policy, which will emphasize maritime security, and the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy which is the brainchild of Prime Minister Abe.
Who Looks After Pacific Maritime Security?
In my lectures I stressed the limits on the capacity of PIC governments to effectively manage their ocean areas. Most of the PICs have large exclusive economic zones, which are hundreds or thousands of times the size of their landmass. It is not only the relevance of land mass and their EEZ, but also their GDP and population numbers, that tell us about the limits on national capacity to manage the waters surrounding their countries.
I introduced comparisons between Japan and Palau. The per-person size of Japan’s EEZ is the same as one baseball field, while in Palau it is 1,000 baseball fields. In Japan the GDP is US$1 million for each square kilometer of EEZ, while in Palau it is only $400.
At this moment the large Pacific Ocean is a lawless space for all kinds of transnational crimes, such as human trafficking, illicit drug trade, illegal fishing, and illegal migration. We know that the Australian government has for decades provided a Pacific patrol boat program and we sincerely respect their efforts. However, one patrol boat for each PIC with limited human resources and large operating costs cannot protect any country’s maritime security. Also, there has emerged another actor which has strong interests in the Pacific Ocean: China.
Who Took Keating’s Warning Seriously?
In 2008 Admiral Keating of the United States Pacific Command (PACOM) gave a warning that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is interested in dividing the Pacific Ocean between China and the U.S. Although it became news, at the time no one reacted seriously towards his warning, except Mr. Yohei Sasakawa, chair of Nippon Foundation.
Mr. Sasakawa asked my opinion on how Japan could contribute towards strengthening the sense of community among the Pacific Ocean islands. I suggested focusing on the Micronesian region, where Japan has a historical, economic, and geographic relationship. It would also contribute to strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance.
Over the last 10 years the Nippon Foundation has promoted not only providing patrol boats to Micronesian countries, but also dialogue among the Micronesian countries as well as with the U.S. and Australia.
PACOM and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) have always welcomed initiatives from Japan’s NGOs for the maritime security of the western Pacific, although the Rudd government of Australia, especially the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), had strong reservations in the beginning. This situation, however, changed when Tony Abbott became the Australian prime minister.
How About the Japanese Government?
After 10 years of warnings from Admiral Keating, Foreign Minister Taro Kono finally made a comment that Japan faces the Pacific Ocean and China does not. This was in response to a statement by Chinese President Xi Jinping that China and the U.S. could divide the Pacific Ocean.
I have been lobbying maritime security stakeholders from the U.S. and Australia since 2008. These stakeholders have asked me why an NGO and not the government of Japan was taking the initiative on security. It was an odd feeling to explain to them Japan’s unique security regime under Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which was set up by the Allied Forces after the war.
Although Japan relies heavily on maritime transportation, it had not held an official maritime security role outside its own boundaries since the end of the Pacific war. Again, the Nippon Foundation (The original name is the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation) took the initiative by launching a surveillance system for the Malacca Straits.
Why Does Japan Have Two Maritime Law Enforcement Agencies?
It was also odd to find myself explaining to U.S. and Australian security experts why Japan has two maritime law enforcement agencies: the Japan Fisheries Agency and the Japan Coast Guard. These two agencies were established by the United States after the war.
U.S. fisheries experts even suggested that the Japanese government should establish the Ministry of Fisheries. Now, the Japan Fisheries Agency has more than 40 patrol boats and, since 2014, one of them—a 500-ton vessel—has been dispatched to the Palau EEZ, where illegal Vietnamese fishing boats (so called “Blue Boats”) were discovered.
Who is Connected to the Indo-Pacific Ocean?
In my lectures to Parliament members I pointed out that the 14 PICs have large EEZs in the Indo-Pacific region. Prime Minister Abe has referred to the Indo-Pacific as an area of confluence, a joining of waters. Such an idea has a deep history. Three thousand years ago a seafaring Austronesian-speaking people connected these two oceans. They are the ancestors of the people of Remote Oceania in the Pacific Islands.
These people enjoyed the free and open sphere of oceans, and exchanged many goods in the past. Examples include bringing the banana from Asia to Africa. They brought sweet potatoes from South America into the Pacific islands. The seafaring skill and knowledge of these Austronesian peoples was even more amazing as they voyaged back and forth over hundreds and thousands of kilometers by canoe, moving people, animals, plants, knowledge, and new concepts. I call them the great colonizers.
Many scholars have argued that the small islands have fragile resources and the survival of the communities living on these small islands depends on external exchange networks linking them with outside groups. Islands without these links disappear.
Messages from the past have important lessons for communities today. PICs today could develop their natural resources with other countries such as Japan, rather than restrict themselves. For example, New Zealand’s most successful fisheries company is owned by Maori iwi Ngai Tahu and shared with a major Japanese fishing company. They are developing their capacity together and spreading into a global market.
PICs Role in a Successful Indo-Pacific Strategy
In February 2018 the Nippon Foundation handed over the sub-regional maritime coordination center in Palau. This center originated out of a concept by Dr. Sam Bateman and Dr. Anthony Bergin of Australia.
If maritime security is on the main agenda for the next PALM, then they should invite the U.S. and France, which have jurisdiction over massive sections of the EEZ in the Pacific.
Any successful Indo-Pacific strategy will not be limited to the hegemony of countries with a large sea power like Japan, the U.S., Australia, or India. The 14 PICs should not only have an active role but should lead the development of any Indo-Pacific strategy.
The original article was published in the Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 417, by the East-West Center in Hawaii.