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Iranian Oil Tanker Disaster Highlights Northeast Asia's Faultlines

Iranian Oil Tanker Disaster Highlights Northeast Asia's Faultlines
Tom Corben January 26, 2018

In this Jan. 14, 2018, photo provided by China's Ministry of Transport, a rescue ship sails near the burning Iranian oil tanker Sanchi in the East China Sea off the eastern coast of China. Image Credit: Chinese Ministry of Transport via AP
Without substantial revisions to multilateral regimes, the Sanchi environmental crisis will not be the last of its kind.

It has been nearly a fortnight since an explosion aboard the stricken oil tanker Sanchi saw it sink in waters between eastern China and southwestern Japan. The Iranian vessel had been carrying approximately 136,000 tonnes of ultra-light crude oil to South Korea before colliding with the Hong Kong-registered CF Crystal approximately 300 kilometers off the coast of Shanghai on January 6. As the vessel burned and oil leaks sprang, experts forewarned of an environmental disaster rating among the worst in history.

Initially, it appeared as if the international community — more specifically, key regional actors — would respond collectively and efficiently to the crisis. Chinese, South Korean, and U.S. vessels were among the first responders, while Iran’s navy joined efforts on January 10. Japan also offered assistance, though the Chinese government apparently rejected these offers despite Iranian appeals for help from both states in the search for its missing sailors. By the time Beijing publicly welcomed assistance from “other relevant parties,” the Sanchi had already drifted significantly south-southwest before sinking approximately 315 km off of Anami Oshima, a major island in the Ryukyu Island chain, and within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) according to the Japan Coast Guard.

Mainstream media have focused largely upon the search for the tanker’s missing crew and the environmental ramifications of the worsening oil spill, particularly concerning the safety of seafood harvested from the East China Sea and the pollution of a major transit artery for many marine migratory species. Apart from polluting common fisheries and breeding grounds for staple seafood, current simulations project that the oil plume will reach both the southwest coast of Japan and the pristine island of Jeju off South Korea within a month. Indeed, the spill has rapidly expanded, tripling in size according to some estimates. To compound matters, the refined oil carried by the Sanchi is largely invisible to the naked eye and kills microbes in the ocean that usually break down oil slicks. The tanker’s recent sinking has made clean-up efforts significantly more difficult, for not only has the refined oil become more difficult to access, but the Sanchi is now also leaking its own heavier fuel from the seafloor.
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Evidently, this is an environmental disaster with gross regional consequences. Yet the manner in which Northeast Asian states have both individually and collectively responded to the Sanchi crisis is indicative of the poor state of regional environmentalism and distrustful relations between Tokyo, Beijing, and Seoul. In particular, there is little evidence that China and Japan have moved to set aside their differences and act together in the common regional interest. Scholars have long discussed the imperative for states and thinkers alike to consider the Northeast Asia maritime sphere as a potential area of cooperation “through mutual efforts to counter nontraditional threats to maritime security,” yet prospects on this front have consistently fallen short of expectations. Chinese officials have claimed that there was “no precedent for this accident” despite an extensive history of accidents and oil spills in regional waters. Several prominent figures have since called for regional states to establish protocols on maritime traffic, disaster response and environmental assessments in the interests of precluding and/or mitigating such crises.

But such mechanisms do in fact already exist. The problem is that they are, for the most part, entirely ineffective.

Several multilateral arrangements have been previously struck in the interests of preserving maritime and environmental security in Northeast Asia, such as the North-West Pacific Action Plan (NOWPAP) and the Tripartite Environment Ministers Meeting between Japan, China, and South Korea. Such mechanisms are, in theory, purposed to facilitate cooperative regional responses to major industrial-environmental maritime disasters such as the Sanchi crisis. NOWPAP in particular would seem to be the most effective regime to invoke in this instance. The 1994 agreement between China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia is supposed to facilitate preventative and responsive measures for major oil spills. In fact, the states established the Regional Oil Spill Contingency Plan of 2004 at their respective ministerial levels, yet there has been no mention of that particular agreement whatsoever, at least not in public.

Indeed, NOWPAP has demonstrated a gross inability to present clear and achievable targets that could facilitate cooperation between distrustful neighbors, and contribute to the sustainability of common fisheries and the environment more generally. Ministerial responsibility for NOWPAP participation is inconsistent across respective governments between foreign and environmental portfolios. Furthermore, that the regime has two secretariats — in Tokohama, Japan and Busan, South Korea — reflects the inability of the regime’s participants to settle upon a long-term working relationship, nor to separate common interest from rivalry and distrust. Conflicting priorities of member states — namely, between environmental protection and resource extraction — have also obstructed tangible progress. To the skeptic’s eye, NOWPAP appears as yet another empty Northeast Asian talk-shop.

Multilateralism aside, sluggish responses from Beijing and Tokyo in particular have begun to prompt speculation that ongoing territorial disputes could be obstructing cooperative efforts. For instance, an absence of scientific monitoring buoys that could have provided efficient assessments of ocean contamination has been put down to the existing animosities between the two states. Indeed, while the Sanchi’s sinking is a major disaster, given its steady southerly drift toward the heavily disputed waters surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands before it sank, its demise short of that particular region is perhaps extremely fortunate. If cooperation is as difficult as it appears now, there is no telling what sort of geopolitical ramifications an environmental disaster in disputed waters could have had, considering persistent military tensions between Beijing and Tokyo in that particular pocket of ocean. It is highly unlikely that Tokyo would simply have allowed the Chinese authorities to take command of clean-up operations around the islands, for doing so could be interpreted as ceding an element of sovereign jurisdiction and a weakening of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s tough posture on national defense, regional security, and border integrity. Chinese assets regularly test Japanese air and maritime space as it is. The severity of the environmental threat would risk being lost amid issues of territorial integrity — though perhaps this is already happening.

It is evident that the age-old dilemma between coexistence and rivalry faced by regional actors is already hampering efforts to respond to the Sanchi crisis, but we should be under no illusions that this is a one-off occurrence. Though Tokyo and Beijing recently reaffirmed pledges to enhance bilateral maritime cooperation at the Japan-China Shipping Policy Forum, talk of renewed commitments to abstract regimes cannot substitute for the creation of substantial binding mechanisms that demand speedy cooperation from all regional actors on common industrial-environmental threats. While the prospects for such developments remain dim, if multilateral environmentalism in Northeast Asia continues to flounder, then the Sanchi crisis will not be the last of its kind.

Tom Corben is an International Relations and Asian Studies (Hons) graduate from the University of New South Wales, Australia.