The Nautilus Institute

Energy, Security and Environment in Northeast Asia Network
Policy Forum Online
December 15, 1998

ESENA Policy Forum Online essays provide succinct, expert analysis of contemporary energy, security and environmental issues in Northeast Asia. Many essays are based on longer papers. Readers are invited to participate in discussion of the essays.

NE Asian Marine Issues - #1
Waterlogged? U.S.-Japan Action on Energy-Related Marine Issues in Northeast Asia

By Ken Wilkening

Copyright (c) 1998 Nautilus of America/The Nautilus Institute


I. Introduction

II. Nautilus Institute Essay

III. Nautilus Invites Your Responses

I. Introduction

This essay is the first in a series of essays on energy-related marine issues in the regional seas of Northeast Asia. The energy, environmental and security aspects of such issues will be explored with the purpose of engaging a broad community of experts, policymakers, non-governmental organizations, and interested citizens in a dialogue on ocean policies in the Northeast Asian region. The essay is based on a paper ("U.S.-Japan Policy Initiatives on Energy-Related Marine Issues in the Sea of Japan") prepared by the Nautilus Institute for a workshop held in July 1998 in Tokyo, Japan on appropriate and feasible U.S.-Japan policy initiatives which address oil-related marine issues in the Sea of Japan/East Sea. The essay also incorporates results from the workshop.

II. Nautilus Institute Essay

"Waterlogged? U.S.-Japan Action on Energy-Related Marine Issues in Northeast Asia"

1. U.S. Oceans Policy and Northeast Asia

On 11-12 June 1998 the first National Ocean Conference in the United States was held in Monterey, California. The conference was attended by President Clinton, Vice-President Gore, and four Cabinet Secretaries. One of the keynote speakers, Silvia Earle, author of the noted book Sea Change and former chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), predicted the conference would be a turning point in ocean protection in the United States: "Never before have the highest officials in this country...come together to focus on ocean issues. Never before have the oceans been such a high priority."

President Clinton and Vice President Gore launched a series of major initiatives to explore, protect, and restore vital ocean resources in the United States, and proposed spending an additional $224 million through 2002 on their initiatives. President Clinton proposed building a "comprehensive oceans agenda for the 21st century," and directed his Cabinet to report back to him in one year (by June 1999) with recommendations for a "coordinated, disciplined, long-term federal oceans policy." He also stated he wants to work with the Congress to create an oceans commission to aid in forging an ongoing oceans strategy.

A U.S. National Oceans Policy, however, can not be constructed in isolation from worldwide oceans problems. The Clinton administration’s domestic initiatives must also be pushed into the international arena. Domestic oceans-related goals can not be met without also tackling larger international goals. One region of the world where a strong case can be made for the United States to expend a fraction of its ocean-related resources is the Sea of Japan/East Sea region. In particular, it is argued in this essay that the United States should engage with Japan in developing a set of joint U.S.-Japan policy initiatives to protect the marine environment in the Sea of Japan/East Sea from energy-related pollution.

[Before continuing a word must be said on the name of the regional sea which lies between Japan and the east coast of the Korean Peninsula and the southeast coast of Russia. The sea is most commonly referred to as the "Sea of Japan." However, North and South Koreans refer to it as the "East Sea." The issue of the name of the sea is highly contentious between the Koreas and Japan. In this essay the sea is referred to as "Sea of Japan/East Sea."]

2. U.S. Interests in the Sea of Japan/East Sea Region

Let’s begin by asking: Why should the U.S. put precious resources into energy-related marine issues in the Sea of Japan/East Sea? This question can be answered by breaking it into three separate questions: Why should the U.S. focus on energy issues; why should it focus on energy-related marine issues; and why should it focus on such issues in the Sea of Japan/East Sea region.

Why should the U.S. focus on energy issues in Northeast Asia? In the world of international relations, energy is a "high politics" issue. In other words, energy is a resource that almost all countries of the world devote significant amounts of political, economic, and military effort to securing. In stark realpolitik terms, energy is one of only a handful of issues nations will go to war over. Energy is a critical issue in Northeast Asia. First, future growth in energy demand in the region most likely cannot be met by supply in the region. This seems especially true of demand for oil. Future growth in energy demand in China, in particular, will require import of fuels from outside the region. Second, competition for energy supplies, particularly oil, will almost certainly tighten in the near-term future, especially if there are interruptions in the market. Third, barring unforeseen new discoveries or technological breakthroughs, Northeast Asia's dependence on oil imports from the Persian Gulf will increase from about 75% today to over 90% within two decades. And fourth, two of the key countries of Northeast Asia--Japan and South Korea--are almost totally dependent on imports for virtually all their conventional fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas). This makes them highly vulnerable to disruptions in the delivery systems for these fuels. In sum, given that energy issues are a potential flashpoint in Northeast Asia, and given that the U.S. has significant military and economic interests in the region, it is urgent that the U.S. focus attention on energy- related issues in the region.

Why should the U.S. focus on energy-related marine issues in Northeast Asia? At present, two broad sets of energy-related marine issues of international scope are highly relevant in the Sea of Japan/East Sea region: 1) navigation safety and sea lines of communication (SLOC) issues, and 2) environmental protection issues. SLOC issues are intimately related to security issues, and U.S. military interests in the region alone speak to the need to be attentive to SLOC issues. In Northeast Asia, energy-related SLOC issues revolve primarily around protection of sea corridors for transport of oil from the Middle East. Given the dependence of Northeast Asia on Middle East oil, little needs to be said as to why safe transport of Middle East oil is a central military and political concern of the countries of Northeast Asia. Even though at this point in time the Sea of Japan/East Sea is not the locus of major oil-related SLOCs, SLOC issues, especially in the straits between South Korea and Japan, are important matters of concern in the region. Linked to SLOC issues, especially in the straits between South Korea and Japan, are also issues of navigation safety.

Environmental protection issues, while not generally accorded the importance of SLOC issues in government policy circles, are nevertheless receiving increased attention. They are receiving attention in two ways in the Sea of Japan/East Sea. First as an ecological issue (for instance, concern over the isoyake or sea desert phenomenon), and second as a security and freedom of navigation issue (for instance, "creeping jurisdiction" as states expand their zone of jurisdiction to protect their coastal environment). Besides these, other environmental protection concerns in the Sea of Japan/East Sea include risk of oil spills, risk of accident from ocean transport of nuclear waste, runoff of energy-related waste from land-based activities, port management practices in the handling of oily wastes from ships, and dumping of nuclear wastes in open seas.

In sum, given the importance of energy-related SLOC, navigation, and environmental protection issues, and given that the U.S. has significant military and economic interests in the region, the U.S. should cooperate with Northeast Asian nations in addressing these issues.

The Sea of Japan/East Sea is a relative 'backwater' of Asian regional seas. Therefore, why should the U.S. focus on the Sea of Japan/East Sea region as opposed to other regional seas? There are several reasons why such a focus is critical at this time.

First of all, the Sea of Japan/East Sea is a relatively unspoiled regional sea and therefore is a prime candidate for preservation. Action can be taken now so that the Sea of Japan/East Sea does not become a "dead sea" like the Yellow Sea. (In a move designed to bring attention to the plight of the Yellow Sea, the South Korean government recently declared the Yellow Sea, a dead sea.)

Second, the Sea of Japan/East Sea, though a site of tension during the Cold War, is currently in a relatively quiescent state, and therefore is a prime candidate for exploring avenues of multilateral cooperation among the littoral states. The littoral states of the Sea of Japan/East Sea include Japan, the Russian Federation, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the Republic of Korea (ROK), and China by virtue of the Tumen River whose watershed encompasses Chinese territory and which may provide China with access to the Sea of Japan/East Sea. The Sea of Japan/East Sea region may be an easier arena for facilitating cooperation among the littoral states as compared to the more contentious regions around the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea.

Third, significant development is expected to take place in the Sea of Japan/East Sea region in the near-term future. The Russian Far East, the west coast of Japan, the southeastern coast of the ROK especially around Pusan and Ulsan, the east coast of the DPRK, and the Tumen River basin are all being developed, are poised for development, or have the potential to be a site of major development. If "sustainable development" measures are incorporated into development plans in the region in the early phases of development (such as is being attempted in the Tumen River watershed) the worst by-products of development may be avoided.

Fourth, at present there are no multilateral political institutions and few political arrangements which include all the states in the Sea of Japan/East Sea region. As Mark Valencia of the East-West Center states: "In few other semi-enclosed seas are multilateral measures for marine pollution control as deficient as those in the Sea of Japan/East Sea." There are, for instance, no multilateral cooperative scientific efforts which simultaneously involve all Sea of Japan/East Sea countries; no fora where all Sea of Japan/East Sea fishing nations can meet to discuss the distribution of catches; and no regional emergency response mechanisms in place to deal with oil spills.

In sum, given the present lack of institutionalized cooperation in the Sea of Japan/East Sea region but potential for such cooperation, and given the pristine state of the marine environment but potential for its destruction, the U.S. should invest resources in encouraging cooperation and environmental protection in the Sea of Japan/East Sea. There are several specific domains in which U.S. interests intersect with Sea of Japan/East Sea energy-related marine issues. These include the domains of trade and marine shipping, security and freedom of navigation, and environmental protection. Each will be discussed briefly below.

- Maritime Shipping in Northeast Asia

There are significant economic and strategic implications for the United States to the current trend of increasing volume of maritime shipping and trade in the sea lanes of Asia. Although the geographical pattern of Asian trade in the past two decades has been a steady rise in intra-regional trade, inter-regional trade especially between Asia and the advanced industrial nations of the West remains a vital component. Anything that disrupts the flow of goods between the United States and its trading partners in Asia can be seen as a blow to U.S. interests. The U.S., therefore, has a stake in working to establish a system of smooth, safe, and sustainable maritime shipping practices in Asia in general, and Northeast Asia in particular.

Marine transport is conventionally divided into three major categories: dry bulk, liquid bulk, and general cargo. Of these, as far as the United States is concerned, marine transport of liquid bulk cargoes of crude oil from the Middle East to Northeast Asian nations constitutes the most politically significant type of cargo carried through Northeast Asian regional seas. Anything that interrupts the marine transport of oil to strategic states in Northeast Asia could dramatically affect U.S. interests. Although at present very little crude oil or petroleum product trade traverses the Sea of Japan/East Sea, future industrial development (leading to increased imports) or future energy resource exploitation (leading to increased exports), could make the Sea of Japan/East Sea region a hot spot for the problems and risks associated with marine transport of oil. Therefore, it can be argued that the U.S. has a vested interest in encouraging and supporting measures that will ensure the safety and sustainability of marine transport of oil in the region.

- Freedom of Navigation

The United States has a powerful interest in protecting traditional freedom of navigation and maintaining safe navigation practices in Asian waters. This stems from not only its naval and military concerns, but also its free trade and economic concerns. The United States has, for instance, declared in the Spratley Islands dispute between China, Vietnam, and the Philippines that freedom of navigation is "a fundamental interest" of the United States.

Currently, threats to freedom of navigation and security in the Northeast Asian region stem more from non-military than military sources. Non-military threats include natural disasters, accidents, piracy, and "creeping jurisdiction" of regional states (in other words, extending the zone of coastal jurisdiction of a nation for safety, anti-pollution, or other reasons).

While the most immediate threats seem to stem for non-military sources, there remain threats that, if realized, could spill over into armed conflict in the region. Such military sources of threat include: 1) a coastal state’s interdiction of navigation through attempts to control freedom of passage for national security reasons (a real threat in the Sea of Japan/East Sea during the Cold War); 2) domestic instability in coastal states (a possibility in the DPRK); and 3) contention among neighboring countries regarding overlapping maritime claims (a distinct possibility in territorial disputes over islands or in disputes over Exclusive Economic Zone boundaries).

In sum, the United States has a vital interest in keeping potentially volatile freedom of navigation and security issues from erupting into conflict. The Sea of Japan/East Sea may be a region offering a prime test site for instituting marine-related cooperative security and freedom of navigation arrangements.

- Maine Environmental Protection

The United States has an abiding interest in helping protect the world’s oceans. The future of human civilization is vitally dependent on the condition of the world’s oceans. The U.S. as the most scientifically and technologically advanced nation in the world, as the sole remaining super power, and as one of the largest polluters affecting the marine environment, incurs an obligation to help less politically stable and economically viable regions of the world address marine issues. The Sea of Japan/East Sea is one area where, in conjunction with Japan, it can demonstrate environmental leadership on ocean issues.

3. Proposals for Joint U.S.-Japan Policy Initiatives

Japan is the current leader in the Northeast Asian region on marine issues. Therefore, the U.S. and Japan are logical partnerships in tackling energy-related Sea of Japan/East Sea marine issues. U.S.- Japan cooperation also offers an excellent opportunity to encourage the general process of multilateral confidence-, capacity-, and institution-building in the region.

A group of scholar and policymakers brought together by the Berkeley, California-based Nautilus Institute and the Tokyo-based Center for Global Communications (GLOCOM) at the International University of Japan through the Energy, Security and Environment in Northeast Asia (ESENA) Project, funded by the U.S.-Japan Foundation and The Japan Foundation's Center for Global Partnership, sought to identify areas of cooperation between the United States and Japan in the Sea of Japan/East Sea region. The following set of topics areas for cooperation were identified:

  1. cooperation in developing a regional marine monitoring network and developing a regional-scale numerical model of the Sea of Japan/East Sea,
  2. cooperation in developing systems of integrated coastal zone management in the circum-Sea of Japan/East Sea region,
  3. cooperation in developing a sea vessel traffic control scheme in the straits between Korea and Japan,
  4. cooperation in standardizing port management practices for the handling of ship wastes (especially oil), and
  5. cooperation in developing oil spill response mechanisms in the region.

At present, the two main energy-related marine issues in the region are oil pollution and contamination from nuclear waste (primarily through ocean dumping of radioactive wastes or an accident in the transport of radioactive materials). Since oil pollution issues seem more conducive to multilateral cooperation among all the littoral states, the ESENA Project decided to focus attention on initiatives which address oil-related marine pollution in the Sea of Japan/East Sea.

The ESENA Project developed over the course of one year a consensus on a series of potentially fruitful U.S.-Japan joint policy initiatives which address oil pollution problems in the region. They are as follows:

  1. develop a mussel watch monitoring program and a squid watch monitoring program in the Sea of Japan/East Sea (mussels and squid are sensitive indicator species of ecological change);
  2. develop a Sea of Japan/East Sea-wide simulation model which incorporates water quality and ecological data, and which in its model construction activities involves institutional capacity- building in the littoral states;
  3. engage in a bay-to-bay comparative study in which three to seven bays in the Sea of Japan/East Sea and the US are studied using identical methodologies (the study would include activities related to monitoring, modeling, coastal zone management practices and oil spill response mechanisms, and would involve scientists, policymakers, industry, and citizen groups); and
  4. establish a cooperative Sea of Japan/East Sea oil spill response mechanism which utilizes and invigorates existing programs such as those within the Northwest Pacific Action Plan (NOWPAP) and the US- Japan Common Agenda.

The above four recommendations for US-Japan policy initiatives were deemed by the ESENA Project to be the most likely to stimulate international cooperation in the Sea of Japan/East Sea region and to have the greatest potential to mitigate oil-related marine pollution problems.

Read the full version of
"U.S.-Japan Policy Initiatives on Energy-Related Marine Issues in the Sea of Japan"

The Nautilus Institute Invites Your Responses

What do you think of the above recommendations? Do you have suggestions for other recommendations for U.S.-Japan joint policy initiatives on energy-related oil pollution in the Sea of Japan/East Sea region? The Energy, Security, Environment in Northeast Asia Network invites your responses to this essay. Please send responses to: Responses will be considered for redistribution to the network only if they include the author's name, affiliation, and explicit consent.

Produced by The Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development
Energy, Security and Environment in Northeast Asia Project (
Ken Wilkening, Program Officer
125 University Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94710-1616 USA
(510) 204-9296 * Fax (510) 204-9298 * Web:

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