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Untying Japan’s Hands for Stronger Maritime Security in the Indo-Pacific





“We need Japan. We need the Japanese Navy to protect the vast Pacific Ocean. Japan is the only country which can protect the Pacific with the U.S. But we have tied their feet and hands.”


This was the unofficial comment by top United States military personnel to a Palauan friend who attended the Palau-U.S. security meeting in Hawaii in 2008. Why was this very important message from the top U.S. military personnel known?


I had been in charge of and launched the Micronesia Sea-Surveillance Project for Palau, Federated States of Micronesia and Marshalls with support from Japan, US and Australia. The first step was to talk with a high official from the Republic of Palau who had been an acquaintance for more than a decade. I found him in Hawaii and placed a conference call from the United Nations University in Tokyo, which has a special network with the University of Hawaii. The conversation went like this:



Honorable K, we would like to support maritime security in Micronesia. What do you think?


Rieko, we just talked about it here in Hawaii with U.S. officials. Yes, let’s go ahead. I will talk to my President.



At the time, I did not fully understand what the Honorable K was talking about. However, in 2008, the U.S. military’s top brass already fully understood the problem of maritime security in the Pacific, including the capacity of the Japanese Navy and its strengths and limitations. More importantly, it was confirmed that the U.S. needed Japan.



This message encouraged me to move forward, because I understood what I was doing.


Holding discussions with high officials of Micronesian countries was very stressful. However, their trust had been gained over many years through the Telecommunication Policy Project, among others. In the end, the President of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) told me: “Rieko, our list of requests for help is endless. Maritime security is one of them. Please go ahead.”


At the presidential summit with Palau, the FSM, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) in November 2008, all three presidents agreed to request Japan’s support for their maritime security. However, strong reservations were felt from two quarters: one was Australia, and the other was the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA).



Australia’s Reservations



After the end of the Cold War, the U.S. withdrew from the Pacific. At the time, Australia was the only sea power that supported Pacific maritime security.


In the 1980s, when exclusive economic zones (EEZ) were launched by many small island states, the Australian government launched the Pacific Patrol Boat Program (PPBP) for Pacific Island Countries (PIC). Interestingly, in 2008, when I was trying to launch the Sea Surveillance Project, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) issued a letter to their government stating, “Chasing fish is not the Navy’s responsibility.”


The Australian government started working to shift the responsibility of chasing fish from their navy to the law enforcement entities, such as border protection. However, the RAN and government of the anti-Japan former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd eventually changed their minds.


RAN had strong reservations about Japan’s presence in the Pacific. The PPBP eventually would be continued, but within a modified framework, because if they left the Pacific, then Japan would come into their backyard – the Pacific Ocean. Good on you, OZ!




Commuting to Canberra


Since 2009, I had to visit Canberra frequently to talk with officials related to Pacific maritime security from the Royal Australian Navy, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), and others, especially the late Senator Russell Trood, who was the chair of the Pacific security committee.


The Maritime Security Study Group was launched, with invitations to Senator Trood, Dr. Bergin from ASPI, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), and various scholars. In 2013, when I visited DFAT in Canberra, about 10 officials were waiting. They welcomed Japan’s initiative, even asking advice about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s then-upcoming visit to Australia.


I told them : “2014 is the centennial anniversary of Japan-Australia maritime cooperation.”



Everyone fell from their chairs. But, as a result, Prime Minister Abe visited near Albany, where the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) departed for Gallipoli in Turkey in 1914, with an escort from the Japanese Imperial Navy.



The Micronesia Sea-Surveillance Project


The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has never understood security. They do not know anything about the Pacific Islands, nor Australia. However, in 2008, thanks to the efforts of former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, we had embassies in three Micronesian nations which had once been Japanese territories.


MOFA was another obstacle to my efforts towards launching the Micronesia Sea-Surveillance Project. MOFA, DFAT, and RAN tried to stop our new challenge, while leaders of Micronesia fought the interference in their sovereignty.



Micronesian countries have a unique security arrangement with the U.S. as a Compact of Free Association (CFA). So, if America agrees and supports them, Japan should join their security.


Top personnel of the United States military mentioned, as noted above, that they were eager for Japanese participation in this region. Australia did a great job; however, they had limited capacity to look after the whole Pacific.


Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono talked about the situation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on February 14, 2020.


The Micronesia Sea-Surveillance Project could have been launched with support from the pro-Japan government of former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s administration. A maritime coordination-building meeting in Palau was arranged.



In 2017, I was invited by two members of the Japanese Parliament from the Maritime and Islands committee who proposed to focus on maritime security for the Indo-Pacific Strategy. The Abe administration took that direction.


In the January 2020 CSIS event, our defense minister, Taro Kono, talked about a security conference inviting Pacific defense ministers, plus U.S., U.K., Australian, New Zealand, and French officials. Their proposal recalled the words about Japan which top U.S. military personnel made in 2008:


We need Japan. We need the Japanese Navy to protect the vast Pacific Ocean. Japan is the only country which can protect the Pacific with the U.S. But we have tied their feet and hands.


Finally, the feet and hands of Japan towards the defense capacity of the Indo-Pacific were to be untied.



Japan and the U.S. should accelerate security cooperation for the Indo-Pacific, especially the Western Pacific, where the United States arranged the CFA with Micronesian countries plus the Taiwan Relations Act.


The architecture of the current CFA was designed with a Cold War mentality. But the next renegotiation of the CFA should focus on the people of Micronesia, with support from Japan which is a steady and powerful U.S. ally.


Source: the NOQ report.


Author: Rieko Hayakawa


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