Japan and Korea: Friends at Sea

Relations on land are tough. But cooperating against piracy far away is one way to move forward.

Editor’s Note: TNI has teamed up with Japan-ROK Working Group at thePacific Forum CSIS in order to preview its upcoming report focused on improving bilateral relations through targeted engagement on a range of areas. The “Japan-ROK Series” will feature five timely articles summarizing these recommendations in fields such as cooperation on North Korea, missile defense, counterpiracy, energy security and inter-parliamentary ties. This is the second article in the series.

The last two years have seen tensions rise between South Korea and Japan as historical and territorial issues have become more prominent. However, despite these tensions, both nations share common interests in freedom of navigation to facilitate the maritime trade that powers the world’s fifteenth- and third-largest economies, respectively. As a result, the potential exists for Japan and South Korea to cooperate more deeply in guaranteeing the safety of sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and addressing the challenges of maritime piracy and armed robbery, which remain an impediment to global freedom of navigation and maritime trade.

There are two main piracy hotspots along the SLOCs that extend from Europe to East Asia: the Gulf of Aden, and in parts of Southeast Asia. Historically, most of the pirate activity in the former region was concentrated in the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea, but attacks have more recently begun shifting towards the waters and harbors of Indonesia.

This transnational threat to the global supply chain requires a dynamic multinational response. Both Japan and South Korea already devote resources to tackling piracy and take part in multilateral initiatives. However, bilateral cooperation remains underdeveloped and presents a potential opportunity for strategic cooperation.

Both states should consider new bilateral initiatives or pursue closer cooperation through multilateral fora. Below are some concrete steps they could consider taking.


1. Increased frequency of naval and coast-guard exercises

Bilateral Japanese-Korean exercises are scarce, some cooperation in maritime search-and-rescue operations notwithstanding. Despite political hurdles, it is important for the two countries to hold more bilateral naval and coast-guard exercises and patrols.

Both navies are already conducting counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, offering an ideal opportunity for joint naval drills far removed from the disputed areas. Closer to home, bilateral coast-guard exercises could be undertaken in less sensitive areas, such as off the coast of Busan. As has recently become commonplace, the U.S. in particular could act as a facilitator in case there is little political impetus for bilateral projects. Such exercises also have the benefit of helping both navies develop transferable skills that could become applicable in the case of a crisis near either Korea or Japan.

2. Information sharing and structured dialogue

a) Information sharing: The signing of a bilateral information-sharing agreement to facilitate cooperation on militarily and politically less sensitive issues in the maritime domain would be a significant confidence-building measure. However, such integrated information sharing is sensitive and would need to take into account the potential reaction of China, which is entangled in the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute with Japan.

One example of an existing system that could serve as a template is the I2C, initiated by the European Union (EU). It allows EU states’ constabulary forces and law-enforcement agencies to track the movement of vessels in real time, to immediately flag any suspicious activities, and take quick action. The I2C was developed principally to facilitate cooperation in countering threats such as clandestine immigration, illegal fishing and pollution. If undertaken by Japan and the ROK, this type of project should be underpinned by an emphasis on such common threats.

b) Annual coast-guard talks: This form of sustained institutional contact would ensure continued information and experience sharing, as well as help with trust building. Later, it could be expanded to include other agencies and institutions and serve as a platform to launch new bilateral initiatives. Such a structured mid-level dialogue would also allow a greater degree of institutional cooperation and the launching of pilot projects.

3. A Japan-Korea ‘Shiprider’ Program

The U.S.-Canada Shiprider Program allows for the coast-guard vessels of one state to enter the territorial vessels of another if the other country’s officer is on board. Japan and Korea could establish a similar program with such close-knit cooperation as its long-term goal. In order to achieve it, it should be preceded by a series of Track 2 or Track 1.5 dialogues, and limited pilot projects, which would serve as ‘proofs of concept’.

Initially, exchanges could be limited to the duration of bilateral or multilateral drills. Later, both the number of crew members on such exchanges as well as the duration of their stay could increase, and they could become actively involved in the regular operational activities of the other force.

4. Coastal Communities Initiative