The United States, Taiwan, and Japan all consider a stable maritime environment critical for security and prosperity. For each of them, maritime stability in the East and South China Seas – and more broadly across the Indo-Pacific region – represents their respective national interests in preserving open sea lanes for transit and trade, reinforcing international norms and rule of law, and reducing the potential for conflict in sovereign and international waters. In recent years, however, all three parties have become increasingly alarmed by the deteriorating maritime safety environment in the Indo-Pacific region, in the East and South China Seas in particular. Especially in the waters surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the Taiwan Strait, Taipei, Tokyo, and Washington have all intensified their sense of urgency in exploring ways to preserve a safe maritime environment. The U.S.-Taiwan-Japan Maritime Safety Working Group was convened based on such concerns.
Recognizing the increasing importance of a safe and stable maritime environment in the Indo-Pacific for Taipei, Tokyo, and Washington, the Stimson Center convened a Track-1.5 dialogue with experts from Japan, Taiwan, and the United States. Over four virtual meetings that were held from July to September 2022 under the Chatham House rule, the experts discussed maritime safety issues, the possibility for cooperation to improve the maritime safety environment, and potential challenges for pursuing such cooperation. The discussion took place within a broader context of challenges to rule of law and the rules-based international order, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The experts participated in their personal capacities.
The United States, Taiwan, and Japan all consider a stable maritime environment critical for security and prosperity. For each of them, maritime stability in the East and South China Seas – and more broadly across the Indo-Pacific region – represents their respective national interests in preserving open sea-lanes for transit and trade, reinforcing international norms and rule of law, and reducing the potential for conflict in sovereign and international waters.
In recent years, however, all three parties have become increasingly alarmed by the deteriorating maritime safety environment in the Indo-Pacific region, in the East and South China Seas in particular. Both areas, often crowded with fishing boats, marine research vessels, as well as maritime transit vessels, have seen tensions rise in recent years, with frequent challenges from Chinese vessels testing the ability of U.S., Japanese, Taiwanese, and other countries’ coast guards to enforce the rule of law in their waters, particularly in their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). Especially in the waters surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and the Taiwan Strait, Taipei, Tokyo, and Washington have all intensified their sense of urgency in exploring ways to preserve a safe maritime environment. The 2021 decision by Taiwan and the United States to increase their maritime cooperation through a Coast Guard Working Group is one example that demonstrates the heightened level of concern on this issue. Japan’s clear acknowledgment of its shared security interests with Taiwan, including the security of the area around the Taiwan Strait, is another such example. The U.S.-Taiwan-Japan Maritime Safety Working Group was convened based on such concerns.
Summary of Discussions
The participants overwhelmingly agreed that candid communication between the three sides is key to further developing maritime coordination. They also identified coast guard cooperation as a major element in promoting a safe maritime environment, because despite the different missions and authorities granted to each, the U.S., Japanese, and Taiwanese coast guards (USCG, JCG, and TCG) share a commitment to the rule of law and good behavior in encounters at sea.
The challenges presented by Chinese vessels for the three coastguards was one of the main issues that the participants discussed. Several challenges were identified. First, various kinds of Chinese vessels are active in the region, including fishing and other working vessels, maritime militia, Chinese Coast Guard (CCG), and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). It can be difficult to discern the intentions of these vessels as benign or part of a broader challenge to disputed maritime or island areas, such as when a fishing vessel enters Japan or Taiwan’s EEZ, which makes responding appropriately to vessels difficult for the JCG or TCG. This increases the possibility for an encounter at sea to escalate.1 Second, expansion of the authorities of the CCG in early 2021 to include potential use of force and a broader area of operations have increased concerns that the CCG may be used to assert China’s maritime power over international consensus on issues like artificial island-building in the South China Sea. Third, China appears to be using its vessels to conduct gray-zone activities in the East China Sea, ranging from regular incursions into Japan and Taiwan’s waters, to provoking encounters that could potentially escalate. With the chilly political climate in cross-Strait and China-Japan relations, and especially a lack of high-level dialogue between Beijing and Taipei, these gray-zone activities are concerning. Moreover, the failure of efforts to establish effective de-escalatory or confidence-building measures with China in the past makes China’s potential response to de-escalatory efforts unclear, further complicating the situation. This has driven interest among the U.S., Japan, Taiwan, and others for greater maritime security cooperation.
There was a general agreement among the participants that the political environment in Washington, Tokyo, and Taipei is conducive to promoting cooperation at present, though the extent to which each partner is willing to pursue cooperation varies. Despite shifts in the political environment that have made open discussion of Taiwan-related issues more politically palatable, including the necessity of deepening Tokyo’s unofficial relations with Taipei, Tokyo remains the most hesitant. For Washington, attention to Indo-Pacific regional cooperation is enjoying an upswing, demonstrated by the bipartisan support for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy and the announcement of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Taipei, eager to strengthen its relationships with other democratic partners, has cultivated closer engagement with the U.S., Japan, and many other partners to balance the growing cross-Strait tension.
Case Study: The 2001 North Korean Spy Ship Incident2
Date: December 22, 2001
Location: Off the coast of Amami Ōshima, southwest Japan
Incident: An unidentified vessel in Japanese waters was pursued by the Japan Coast Guard, which fired warning shots when the vessel ignored orders to stop. After a firefight between the JCG and the vessel, while the Maritime Self-Defense Force waited for orders to board the ship from the Japan Defense Agency (today the Ministry of Defense), an explosion went off inside the vessel which sank it, perhaps set off intentionally by the crew. Japan later raised the vessel and determined it to be a North Korean spy ship.
Takeaway: The spy ship incident shows the JCG’s key role in patrolling Japan’s territorial waters, with its duties defined as law enforcement. However, the difficulty in identifying the vessel and its intentions demonstrates the challenge of determining whether an encounter at sea is a matter for law enforcement or military. The JCG’s legal purview and the service’s limitations in working more closely with the MSDF may hamper the JCG’s ability to handle the challenges it currently faces from Chinese, North Korean, and other vessels in Japanese waters. Further clarity benefits not only the JCG and MSDF but also their foreign coast guard partners.
The Working Group participants noted the timeliness of closer maritime safety cooperation, especially if it builds upon and fills gaps between existing forms of cooperation. These include the Taiwan-Japan Fishery Agreement (2013), which set rules for Japanese and Taiwanese fishers to operate together in the area where Japan and Taiwan’s claims overlap south of the 27th parallel north latitude, sidestepping the issue of Senkaku/Diaoyu sovereignty. The agreement provides a Taiwan-Japan Fishery Committee to manage disputes and facilitate cooperation.3 Japan and Taiwan have also held maritime dialogues – the Taiwan-Japan Maritime Affairs Cooperation Dialogue since 2016 and the Taiwan-Japan Fishery Cooperation Working Group since 2017 – to discuss issues of mutual concern.4 In addition, the Taiwan-U.S. Coast Guard Working Group established in 2021 is a bilateral cooperation mechanism to improve communication and information-sharing through the two coast guards.5 Though there is not a formal communication mechanism among the three coast guards, their search and rescue (SAR) coordination centers can contact each other to facilitate responses to distress signals, in addition to the international very high frequency (VHF) radio communication used at sea for general purposes.
Various codes of conduct and bilateral or multilateral agreements to govern encounters at sea have been signed, but gaps remain, such as the lack of a bilateral agreement between Japan and Taiwan, except for rudimentary cooperation of coast guard agencies on SAR (cf. the memorandum of understanding on SAR in 20176). These kinds of agreements are key to developing and enforcing norms for encounters at sea and reducing risks of collision or escalation. Where there are gaps, political dialogue and communication is increasingly important.
The Working Group participants also discussed the other forms of cooperation and communication that could be used to discuss maritime issues or expand to a U.S.-Japan-Taiwan format. These include the U.S.-Taiwan Monterey Talks, which focus on security issues, and the Japan-Taiwan 2+2 ruling party meeting that was held for the first time in 2021.
Challenges for Cooperation
The participants, while agreeing on the urgent necessity for the U.S., Japan, and Taiwan to seek further opportunities to deepen cooperation, cautioned that political sensitivities must be taken into consideration. They noted that the U.S. and Japan both maintain a “One China”7 policy, which tends to limit cooperation to activities that do not appear to confer any kind of recognition of Taiwan’s sovereignty. On the part of the United States, the participants noted that whenever U.S. presidents – including George W. Bush, Donald Trump, and the incumbent Joe Biden – explicitly articulate their support for Taiwan, including defense of Taiwan, U.S. government officials attempt to backpedal such statements by promptly issuing clarifications which reiterate no change in the official One China policy. In addition, Tokyo remains concerned about China’s reactions to deepening Japan-Taiwan ties, and the political establishment in Japan has not reached a consensus on its approach towards Taiwan. Though some officials within Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have been strong proponents of closer cooperation, other voices and perspectives in the LDP and other parties are more reluctant.
Japan’s hesitance to pursue new forms of cooperation may be amplified by China’s reaction to the visit of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, including extensive military exercises and economic retaliation, which prompted alarm over a fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis. While Beijing avoided a direct confrontation with the United States, the escalating pressure on Taiwan created a precedent for similar levels of pressure or escalation in the future. In prioritizing regional stability, Japan must assess the extent to which engagement with Taiwan might bolster stability and China’s reaction might degrade it. This balancing act will continue to be difficult. With the July 2022 assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who discussed Taiwan issues publicly in recent years, it remains to be seen whether the Japanese political establishment can maintain the momentum of the past few years in deepening engagement with Taiwan, particularly on shared security issues.
For coast guard cooperation, the differing authorities of each coast guard present obstacles in terms of what kind of cooperation is possible. In addition, the USCG and the TCG can cooperate with their respective Navies, and the TCG can be considered a “second navy” for Taiwan in wartime, but the JCG has relatively little cooperation with the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF).
The legal limitations that differentiate the JCG in law enforcement duties from the MSDF present some unique challenges to cooperation. When a situation at sea escalates to a threat to Japan’s survival, the JCG is supposed to evacuate and allow the MSDF to take control of the situation, but there is some doubt as to whether the legal framework and the processes of this transition could keep pace with a swiftly escalating incident. Moreover, as the JCG is strictly prohibited from conducting any kind of military activity, the JCG’s cooperation with the MSDF, including joint drills on responses to suspicious vessels, has been somewhat limited in the past, though drills have been conducted more frequently in the past couple years.8 Without more robust exercises, it is unclear how JCG-to-MSDF transition and partnership would occur in practice during a rapidly escalating situation, or what role the JCG could play in support of the MSDF in a gray-zone situation in which the MSDF must take action.
Case Study: The 2010 Senkaku/Diaoyu Boat Collision
Date: September 7, 2010
Location: Off the coast of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands
Incident: A Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japan Coast Guard vessel in the waters near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands after the boat ignored an order to stop for inspection. The JCG arrested the captain and detained the crew and vessel. Beijing issued several diplomatic protests to demand the release of the fishing boat and crew, who were released on September 13 and 14. China subsequently stopped rare earth mineral exports to Japan through November 2010.
Takeaway: The collision in the waters near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands demonstrates the danger of an increasing number of ships in the area, ranging from fishing to military vessels. The dueling narratives from Tokyo and Beijing about how the collision occurred, who was responsible, whether the fishing boat had a right to operate in those waters, and whether the arrests were appropriate also show the difficulty in managing encounters at sea in disputed waters. The fishing boat’s activities are part of a larger Chinese presence around Senkaku/Diaoyu that, when encountering JCG patrols, increases the risk of accidents and miscommunication.
However, China’s maritime militias complicate the distinction between coast guard and navy activities. This blurry line between law enforcement and military action raises questions about when it is appropriate for a coast guard or a navy to respond to a situation. For example, if a non-Japanese vessel landed on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the pivotal question for Japan’s response is whether the landing is a crime (a law enforcement issue) or an invasion (requiring military response). It is possible that the JCG could face a gray-zone incident in which it would need to cooperate closely with the MSDF to determine the correct response and prevent escalation.
Finally, the lack of options to respond to gray-zone activities presents a challenge for cooperation that seeks to stabilize the region. By their nature, gray-zone activities fall below the threshold of military force and may be difficult to identify as isolated incidents or part of a longer-term strategy of attrition, to distract, weaken, and confuse. For example, the presence of numerous Chinese sand dredging vessels around Taiwan’s outlying islands of Matsu have sometimes entered Taiwan’s EEZ, forcing Matsu’s coast guard and the larger TCG to work overtime to respond. It is difficult to interpret the intentions of the dredgers, whether a deliberate attempt to exert pressure on Taiwan or otherwise.9 In this and other gray-zone incidents, responding with military tools would escalate the situation, but there are few other options at present, especially when gray-zone actors cannot be linked with certainty to a state giving orders. This demonstrates the challenge of developing forms of cooperation that can effectively respond to gray-zone activities.
Case Study: The 2022 Chinese Missiles Fired into Japan’s EEZ10
Date: August 4, 2022
Location: Off the coast of Hateruma Island, southwest Japan
Incident: During live-fire exercises conducted by the PLA around Taiwan, in response to the visit of U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, five Chinese missiles landed in Japan’s EEZ. After Japan issued a diplomatic protest, China argued that Japan and China had not delimited boundaries in those waters, and further argued that China had conducted drills in waters around its sovereign territory, as China claims Taiwan.
Takeaway: Japan’s effort to resolve the issue of the missiles through diplomatic channels was appropriate. When China rebuffed the diplomatic protest, it revealed an additional problem for settling this kind of dispute in the future: if an actor refuses to acknowledge a violation of norms or law, there is little recourse for the actor seeking a resolution. This illustrates the need for stronger enforcement tools, other than military options, for international norms or laws. In addition, preventing this kind of situation in the future, by denying aggressive behavior and deescalating tense situations, is desirable to avoid a challenge to norms and the rule of law.
The Working Group participants identified several recommendations for the United States, Japan, and Taiwan to consider in improving maritime safety cooperation among the three. These recommendations do not necessarily represent the consensus of the group; they do provide, however, a starting point for Washington, Tokyo, and Taipei to establish action plans for concrete cooperation.
The United States should take advantage of the bilateral cooperation it shares individually with Japan and Taiwan to spearhead cooperative initiatives, as the U.S. is better able to withstand pressure from China.
The United States, Japan, and Taiwan should explore new avenues of cooperation and communication between their three coast guards.
Cooperation should focus on less politically sensitive and humanitarian issues, such as Search and Rescue. Law enforcement activities, such as drug interdiction and responding to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, may also be an area for cooperation. Invite China to participate, so long as it does not set preconditions.
Communication should prioritize information sharing to improve Maritime Domain Awareness of difficult or dangerous situations. Communication sharing can start with the three coast guards’ liaisons.
The three coastguards need to develop a mutual understanding of their missions, authorities, and priorities so that they can better cooperate. Expanding coast guard academy exchanges could provide opportunities for deepening this understanding and building bridges for partnership. Joint exercises and aligning operating procedures, while more sensitive, would be useful forms of concrete cooperation.
Consider an agreement between the three coast guards on maritime cooperation.
Expand partnerships with other coast guards as well, such as in regions where the three partners share diplomatic allies, like the Pacific Ocean.
Japan’s Coast Guard should seek closer cooperation with the Maritime Self-Defense Forces, in particular regarding the transition from JCG to MSDF control of a situation at sea.
The three partners should regularize and institutionalize dialogues and other opportunities to encourage communication at the political level.
Institutionalize the Taiwan-Japan Maritime Affairs Cooperation Dialogue and the Fishery Cooperation Working Group.
Hold regular legislator talks between the Japan and Taiwan ruling parties.
Ensure ongoing dialogue with Chinese political leaders to avoid miscalculations, especially during a crisis.
The three partners should work together to strengthen international norms at sea and raise awareness of maritime safety issues around the globe.
Enforce existing norms and rules, including international law.
Explore creative, nonmilitary options for responding to gray-zone activities, such as diplomacy or sanctions. Establish norms and rules for the gray zone, even if some actors do not participate.
Publicize violations of norms or the rule of law to increase awareness, especially among lawmakers. This will also serve as a deterrent to violators. Civil society organizations may help to fill this information gap, such as on maritime law enforcement issues like IUU fishing.