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Maritime Governance Capacity Building: A U.S.-Japan Alliance Agenda for Rule of Law in the Indo-Pacific

Issues & Insights Vol. 21, SR 2, pp. 38-43

Volume Overview

“Maritime Governance Capacity Building: A U.S.-Japan Alliance Agenda for Rule of Law in the Indo-Pacific” is the seventh chapter of Issues & Insights Vol. 21, SR 2 — Advancing a Rules-Based Maritime Order in the Indo-Pacific. Authors of this volume participated in the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Expert Working Group’s 2021 workshop that took place, virtually on March 23-24, 2021. The working group, composed of esteemed international security scholars and maritime experts from Japan, the United States, and other Indo-Pacific states, was formed to promote effective U.S.-Japan cooperation on maritime security issues in the region through rigorous research on various legal interpretations, national policies, and cooperative frameworks to understand what is driving regional maritime tensions and what can be done to reduce those tensions. The workshop’s goal is to help generate sound, pragmatic and actionable policy solutions for the United States, Japan, and the wider region, and to ensure that the rule of law and the spirit of cooperation prevail in maritime Indo- Pacific.

Chapter Excerpt


The Indo-Pacific is a region beleaguered by challenges that undermine the safety and security of those seeking to benefit from the free, fair, and legal use of the sea. State and non-state actors are exploiting weak governance and are creating legal gray space to take actions that directly undermine the security of others. State struggles over sovereignty and administrative control dominate maritime security policy discussions in Washington and Tokyo. However, leaders in other Indo-Pacific capitals are often more immediately concerned about daily losses of life and livelihood caused by activities such as illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, smuggling, terrorism, piracy and sea robbery. The key to rolling back both the state and non-state actors behind these problematic activities is improved governance capacity among the region’s coastal and archipelagic states. The United States and Japan are the two states best positioned to assist with the development of such capacity and can accomplish more acting together than alone. Therefore, the U.S.-Japan Alliance should develop and implement a more holistic strategy to address the full range of Indo-Pacific maritime challenges. This strategy should maintain focus on military competition, while significantly expanding activities to enable the regional maritime governance needed to address the challenges that most littoral partner states place at the top of their policy agendas.

This paper is divided into seven sections. The first describes the challenges to rule of law at sea in the Indo-Pacific noting that both state and non-state actors exploit weak governance for their own ill-gotten gains and the need for improved maritime governance capacity to address those threats. The second section focused on how maritime governance is specifically useful in checking Chinese ‘gray zone’ strategies that exploit weaknesses in the rule of law. The next section evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S.-Japan Alliance as the cornerstone of regional maritime security. The fifth section describes U.S. and Japanese maritime security capacity-building initiatives in Southeast Asia while the sixth discusses the challenges that have prevented alliance managers’ ambitions to coordinate capacity-building projects has yielded few practical outcomes. The final section provides four specific recommendations regarding the implementation of cooperative capacity building as an Alliance agenda.

Challenges to Rule of Law at Sea in the Indo-Pacific

The United Nations describes rule of law as a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including states, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated. Rule of law is fundamental to international peace, security and political stability; to achieve economic and social progress and development; and to protect people’s rights and fundamental freedoms. In the maritime space, rule of law is closely connected to maritime governance, a concept that links two key elements: deliberately established rules and the effective enforcement of those rules. The former involves the standards by which states and non-state actors behave in relation to one another, and the latter involves the mechanisms and methods which ensure that all actors behave in conformity with those standards.

Maritime rule of law is particularly important to ensuring the prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, a region rich in maritime resources and home to essential marine ecosystems. It also houses the world’s busiest sea lanes, routes that carry the goods created and consumed by several of the world’s largest economies. Unfortunately, rule of law is being threatened across much of the region. The rules governing proper behavior at sea are, for the most part, global standards. However, in the Indo-Pacific, both state and non-state actors are making deliberate decisions to ignore or circumvent those rules for their gain. Most of the coastal states lack sufficient capacity to provide the enforcement elements required to counter the malicious actors responsible for these transgressions. Such rule-breaking activities have immediate, long-reaching, and dire impacts on the societies of the region.

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John Bradford is Senior Fellow in the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He holds a Bachelor of Arts (Magna Cum Laude in Asian Studies and Government) from Cornell University, earned a Master of Science (Strategic Studies) from RSIS, and completed the year-long Regular Course at Japan’s National Institute of Defense Studies. He previously served for more than two decades as a U.S. Navy officer focused on the Indo-Pacific.

The Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Expert Working Group’s 2021 workshop and this volume were funded by a grant from the U.S. Embassy Tokyo, and implemented in collaboration with the Yokosuka Council on Asia Pacific Studies (YCAPS).

The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their respective organizations and affiliations. For questions, please email [email protected].

Photo: The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Kimball and Japan Coast Guard Ship Akitsushima, two of the respective services’ newest and most capable vessels, operated alongside response boats to practice interdicting foreign vessels operating illegally inside Japanese waters on February 22, 2021. Source: U.S. Coast Guard/Public domain.