Maritime disputes in East Asia

“Japan, China and the U.S. have some overlapping interests and some conflicting interests in terms of maritime security in East Asia,” said Dr. Yoichiro Sato, Director International Strategic Studies at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University. Sato provided the Hennebach Program in the Humanities Department with a lecture entitled “China, Japan, and Maritime Disputes in East Asia,” in which he discussed his research on the maritime security.

He first cautioned that such disputes can be difficult to quantify and understand. In the past, maritime security issues have been divided into what Sato called “traditional” and “non-traditional” categories. Traditional issues were primarily on a national scale, often involving the military. Non-traditional issues were more closely related to private industry and include piracy, fishing disputes, and transnational crimes. However, as Sato explained, many of the complications in East Asian maritime security occur because “the distinction between those [traditional and non-traditional concerns] starts disappearing; there is way too much overlap between these two categories.”

Sato discussed at length boundary disputes, one the most contentious maritime security issue in East Asia. Countries may claim as part of their exclusive economic zones of up to 200 nautical miles around any land, even the smallest island. This naturally leads to overlap and debate over the definition of land. He said of Japan’s claim, “The problem is that it’s disputed on every corner, except the eastern side because there is no neighbor [to the east].”

Japan specifically has disputed maritime boundaries with Korea, Russia, and China. Of these disputes, the most heated and convoluted are with China. “China’s claim for the maritime area has been very ambiguous until recently,” said Sato. “In the last six, seven years the Japanese and Chinese government have been trying to solve or at least looking like trying to solve this dispute.” Much of this border dispute is fueled by the fact that gas was found right along the border claimed by Japan. Currently, China has drilling rigs set up just on their side of the border and has resisted efforts by Japan to cooperate on drilling or share information. Also, China is now claiming that their land extends to the end of the continental shelf, not the current coastline. This is a complicated claim, as some Japanese territory actually rests on top of this continental shelf.

The friction accrued by these continued disputes sometimes manifests itself. Several times in recent years, Chinese boats have entered Japanese waters and harassed Japanese boats, especially Coast Guard vessels. Of one incident in particular, Sato said, “I don’t think the Japanese government saw this as an act of individual fishermen.” Sato felt the question was “Is it the military acting on its own or the military acting with the consent of the whole government?”

China’s contentiousness continues beyond simply territorial disputes with neighbors. “China doesn’t want to depend on the U.S. for maritime security,” said Sato. The U.S. Department of Defense believes China is attempting to gain total control of the eastern pacific, starting at the first archipelagic line by 2020 then extending to the second archipelagic line by 2050. This is an issue, as Japan is within the second demarcation.

Another contested issue is the safety of maritime passage. Although each country agrees safe maritime passage is important, the problem is “China and Japan and also the United States… have a mix of shared interests and clashing interests.” This has meant that “cooperation has been very limited to the low-threshold non-traditional threats”

Most issues between countries can be points of contention, such as the sea lane communication network. This is secured by the United States Navy, not any of the local countries and therefore the U.S. controls it. China especially is unhappy with this situation and currently trying to build their own communication system.

Another issue, which highlights the differing interests of the nations, is North Korea’s illicit use of maritime passages. According to Sato, North Korea uses the sea for smuggling humans, drugs, and weapons and to insert spies into Japan. Japan, the U.S. and most other countries are concerned about this and desire to see a crackdown, but China tacitly supports North Korea’s actions, increasing friction between the two.

One issue on which most countries agree is piracy. “The U.S., Japan, China, they all don’t like pirates. They all suffer from the economic losses due to piracy in Southeast Asia,” explained Sato. Therefore, the countries collaborate to secure choke points like Indonesia’s Malacca Strait and to decrease losses. For instance, as Southeast Asia was not keen on U.S. run anti-piracy organizations, Japan organized an information center in Singapore at which the Asian countries could share information about pirates.

Sato concluded by reminding the audience that the distinction between traditional and non-traditional governmental and private maritime security issues was blurred in East Asia due to the varying perspectives of the countries involved.



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