Thursday, November 27, 2014

Securing the Rule of Law at Sea

TOKYO – Japan is in a better position than ever before to play a larger and more proactive role in ensuring peace in Asia and the world. We enjoy the explicit and enthusiastic support of our allies and other friendly countries, including every ASEAN member country and the United States, Australia, India, the United Kingdom, and France, among others. All of them know that Japan stands for the rule of law – for Asia and for all people.

We are not alone. In most Asia-Pacific countries, economic growth has nurtured freedom of thought and religion, as well as more accountable and responsive political systems. Though the pace of such changes varies from country to country, the idea of the rule of law has taken root. And that means that the region’s political leaders must ensure respect for international law.

Nowhere is that need clearer than in the area of international maritime law. The Asia-Pacific region has achieved tremendous growth in the span of a single generation. Regrettably, a large and relatively disproportionate share of the fruits of that growth is going toward military expansion. The sources of instability include not only the threat of weapons of mass destruction, but also – and more immediately – efforts to alter the territorial status quo through force or coercion. And those efforts are taking place largely at sea.

Recently, US President Barack Obama and I mutually reaffirmed our countries’ alliance as the cornerstone of regional peace and security. Moreover, the United States and Japan are strengthening trilateral cooperation with like-minded partners to promote regional and global peace and economic prosperity. Already, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and I have agreed that we should do exactly that.

The history of international maritime law is long, stretching back to ancient Greece. By Roman times, the seas were open to all, with personal possession and partitioning prohibited. Since the dawn of the Age of Exploration, large numbers of people have crossed the seas for myriad reasons, and marine-based commerce has connected the world’s regions. Freedom on the high seas became a foundational principle for human prosperity.

No particular country or group created international maritime law as it now exists. It is the product of humankind’s collective wisdom, cultivated over a great many years for the wellbeing of all. Today, many benefits for humanity depend on the seas from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans remaining fully open.

But what, exactly, does that mean? If we distill the spirit that we have infused into international law over the ages and reformulate it as three principles, the rule of law at sea becomes a matter of common sense.

First, states should make and clarify their claims based on international law. Second, states should not use force or coercion in trying to realize their claims. And, third, states should seek to settle disputes by peaceful means. All three of these very simple – almost self-evident – principles must be emphasized, because all governments in Asia and the Pacific must uphold them rigorously.

Consider Indonesia and the Philippines, countries whose leaders have peacefully reached agreement on the delimitation of their overlapping exclusive economic zones. Likewise, my government strongly supports the Philippines’ call for a resolution to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea that is truly consistent with the three principles of international maritime law, just as we support Vietnam’s efforts to resolve conflicting territorial claims through dialogue.

Rather than attempting to consolidate changes to the status quo by piling one fait accompli upon another, the region’s governments should make a firm pledge to return to the spirit and provisions of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, to which all parties concerned previously agreed. In today’s world, countries should not fear that coercion and threats will replace rules and laws. I strongly hope that ASEAN member states and China can swiftly establish a truly effective code of conduct for the South China Sea.

Japan and China have an agreement that then-Premier Wen Jiabao and I concluded in 2007, during my first term as Prime Minister. We made a commitment to create a maritime and air communication mechanism in order to prevent unforeseen incidents between our countries from generating tensions and miscalculation. Unfortunately, this commitment has not translated into the implementation of such a mechanism.

We do not welcome dangerous encounters by fighter aircraft and vessels at sea. What Japan and China must exchange are words. Should we not meet at the negotiating table, exchange smiles and handshakes, and get down to talking?

I believe that following through on the 2007 agreement would advance the cause of peace and stability in the entire region. But I also know that ensuring long-term security will require many more agreements, each one a crucial strand in a region-wide web of freedom and prosperity.

  • Contact us to secure rights


  • Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (8)

    Please login or register to post a comment

    1. Commentedslightly optimistic

      International law?
      Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger [remember the Nixon shock in 1971] made some dismissive comments about this in his book 'Diplomacy': "Empires have no interest in operating within an international system; they aspire to be the international system. Empires have no need for a balance of power. That is how the United States has conducted its foreign policy in the Americas, and China through most of its history in Asia."

    2. CommentedJeff GE

      China does not have a long history for rule of law. Some may even question if China has a system of rule of law now. So on the issue of securing the rule of law, those countries who have a long history of rule of law (or least make such a claim) should set an example of rule of law for other countries to follow and not use the rule of law as tool for their own gains.

    3. Commentedslightly optimistic

      Re the UN Law of the Sea, the US is not the only country refusing to surrender its sovereignty on property rights. Beijing has signed the treaty but then effectively unsigned it. In 2010 China's foreign minister insisted that the South China Sea is a "core national interest," adding: "China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact."

    4. CommentedJeff GE

      To secure the rule of law at sea, the prime minister should persuade US to ratify UN Law of the Sea Convention first. After that, he may claim that Japan enjoys the explicit and enthusiastic support from US.
      Second, Japan should stop commercial whaling in waters claimed by other countries. After that, the prime minister may claim that "Japan stands for the rule of law -- for Asia and for all people".

      As for dangerous encounters by fighter aircraft and vessels at sea, well, it takes two to tango.

      The prime minister either overestimated his intelligence or underestimated the intelligence of others by double-talking the issue of rule of law.

    5. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

      The United States, Australia and Japan should give a variety of aid such as perosonnel training, aircraft, vessels to Vietnam, the Philippines, Malyasia and the like so that they will be better equipped for maritime and aerial patrolling and law-enforcement.

      I support Abe, though not with carte blanche. He should refrain from doing or uttering things that might be interpreted overseas as remilitarizing attempts. Instead, he should explain to the overseas audience how his security policy is in resonance with, and approved and encouraged by South East Asian countries and how Japanese secutity and foreign affairs experts are frequently meeting and talking with their counterparts from Washington, Canberra, Manila and so on.

    6. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Prime Minister Abe writes: "Japan is in a better position than ever before to play a larger and more proactive role in ensuring peace in Asia and the world". Indeed he has China's rise and America's pivot to Asia to thank for it. It's unclear how much "explicit and enthusiastic support" Japan enjoys of its "allies and other friendly countries". Nevertheless it offers these countries its support in their territorial disputes with China. In most cases "Japan stands for the rule of law. Whether it also stands "for Asia and for all people", is polemic.
      It is true that many Asian countries are seeing economic growth. Hence it is important to enforce a legal framework to secure "regional peace and security". In this essay, Mr. Abe is appealing to "all governments in Asia and the Pacific" to respect international maritime law. China is a member of the International Martime Organisation and should uphold the martime treaty. In recent months its unilateral actions and gunboat diplomacy in South China Sea have made big waves. China's territorial claims are seen as questionable and it has been accused by the contesting parties of violating international maritime law.
      Mr. Abe has not accused China of violating maritime law in this essay, he is perhaps aware of the saying: "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. Japan's whaling industry is also a contentious issue and Japanese whalers have often violated international maritime law, by hunting and killing whales in territorial waters, claimed by Australia and New Zealand. Greence Peace had disrupted a Japanese whaling fleet in the Antarctica in 2008. Its more radical peer, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society had been allegedly attacked by Japanese whalers last February in the Southern Ocean.
      Although whale hunting is part of what Japan calls a scientific research programme, permitted under a clause in International Whaling Commission rules, the same research goals could be achieved using non-lethal methods. This programme is said to be a front for commercial whaling, as every year hundreds of minke and fin whales are being killed.
      It is a pity that the relationship between China and Japan is so frayed that they can not implement "an agreement" signed in 2007, which would "create a maritime and air communication mechanism in order to prevent unforeseen incidents" resulting from "tensions and miscalculation".

    7. Commentedhari naidu

      If I read the tea leaves of Abe’s containment theory of China, in the Sea Lanes of Asia-Pacific region, I’ve a feeling he’s forgotten or misunderstood that Pivot to Asia actually means Pivot to China – for Obama. US will not take sides on the disputed territories in South China Sea. But, for Obama, the ultimate political/legal constraint remains US Senate opposition or lack of ratification of UN Law of the Sea Convention (10 December 1982). 165 countries have, so far, singed the UN Convention. Official rhetoric alone will not suffice against China, as Hagel recently did in Asia. Defense Dept is not the right party to deal with territorial conflict in South China Sea. Only State Dept is capable of dealing with it; however under GWB a lot of these subject matters were transferred to Defense….

      Fact is that Abe’s Japan (along with Germany) is the largest trading partner of PRC. China knows that Japan can’t afford to misjudge the importance of its market to Tokyo. Neither does Japan have the naval military power to challenge China in South China Sea. So this sabre rattling by Abe is for what purpose? You don’t negotiate with Beijing by accusing it of maritime aggression. In other words, China demands Tokyo to stop its political propaganda – eg. visiting the (Fascist) Shrine – and admitting its historical mistakes as an occupation imperial power on mainland China. This seems to be the Chinese precondition; and then the political and diplomatic process can start.

    8. Commentedslightly optimistic

      Ownership of property is a touchy subject. The refusal of countries to OK an international tribunal with power to enforce its judgments means continuing friction over the hundreds of territorial disputes around the world - including resource entitled areas like Ukraine, China seas and the Arctic.
      The US, among many, is unwilling to sign the UN's Law of the Sea Treaty; surrendering any sovereignty to the United Nations is something it wrestles with.