TOKYO - Some 40 nations, including Singapore and China, have been invited to take part in the world's first global Coast Guard summit to be hosted by Japan in September.
Admiral Satoshi Nakajima, the commandant of the Japan Coast Guard, told a news conference on Tuesday (July 18) that it was timely for Japan to take the lead in hosting a comprehensive global summit that goes beyond the current bilateral or regional platforms after 12 editions of an Asia-Pacific Coast Guard summit.
The summit, to be held in Tokyo on September 14, will centre on three themes: maritime safety and marine environment protection, maritime security, and capacity building.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had, in a message to mark the Marine Day public holiday on Monday (July 17), said: "Cooperation among maritime agencies around the world is crucial in order to realise open and stable waterways."
Japan has long been a strong and active advocate for the rule of law in the seas, and has contributed to capacity-building efforts in South-east Asia.
Tokyo does not have any claims in the South China Sea, where Beijing uses the nine-dash line to justify its capacious claims and has built artificial islands and deployed military assets. But it has provided support to claimant states such as Vietnam and the Philippines.
The announcement coincides with the increasing frequency of incursions by Chinese vessels into Japanese waters off the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu islets, but Adm Nakajima stressed there was "no intention to focus on any particular issue" with their Chinese counterparts at the summit.
Thus far this year, Chinese coast guard vessels have entered waters surrounding the contested islets 19 times, the most recent being on Monday (July 17).
Local media reports also said that Chinese coast guard ships entered waters off Aomori prefecture in Japan's north-east for the first time on Monday (July 17). This followed another incident in waters off Nagasaki prefecture in the south last Saturday (July 15).
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters on Tuesday (July 18) that with respect to the incidents off Aomori and Nagasaki, Japan had been notified prior to their entry and the actions did not amount to a breach of international law.
But when asked if they amounted to a "harmless passage", Mr Suga would only say that the acts, while not illegal, cannot be judged to be harmless or not.
By international law, all ships including military vessels can pass through the territorial waters of other countries.
In his message on Monday, Mr Abe noted that Japan as an island country has for centuries relied heavily on the sea for trade. "The abundant resources of the wide oceans bring huge potential, but the circumstances in the waters around Japan have become more dire of late for reasons such as the incursion of foreign vessels."
Last week, a North Korean boat pointed a gun at a Japanese fishing vessel that had been in Japanese waters. Nobody was injured in the altercation.
The September summit will be co-held by the Japan Coast Guard - which is not a military body and comes under the purview of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism - and the Nippon Foundation think tank.
Nippon Foundation chairman Yohei Sasakawa said thus far, many countries are treating maritime security with a "silo" mentality, adding that "it has to be a more coordinated approach."
Dr Heng Yee Kuang, an expert on soft power and security issues at the University of Tokyo, told The Straits Times: "Tokyo has long tried to rely on its Coast Guard as a 'non-military' tool to enhance its regional presence and security profile."
He added: "Tokyo especially wants to enhance its image as a guardian of the maritime commons and supporting a rules-based order, which is a key goal of the Abe administration."
Through such a multi-lateral framework, he said that Tokyo will be able to reduce any potential residual concerns that Japan is once again an active security actor.
"Issues such as piracy are also global, as is environmental protection, oil spills and 'green' sustainable shipping ... It makes sense to go global since these issues are not limited to the region."
Dr Lim Tai Wei, adjunct research fellow of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, also noted that the Japanese and Chinese Coast Guards have been cooperating to fight trafficking and narcotics smuggling, and have agreed to strengthen communication to enhance mutual trust.