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East Asian regional security cooperation has been a long sought-after but elusive goal for decades. Hindered by a lack of Chinese transparency, U.S. distrust and Japanese political uncertainty, options for serious dialogue and, more important, active participation in a long-term security regime for the region have been limited. The current struggle against piracy off the east coast of Africa offers a low-risk opportunity for U.S.-Japan- China cooperation that may establish the foundations for productive future engagement.

The U.S. military has set a positive tone by welcoming the Chinese PLA Navy into international anti-hijacking efforts. This overture should not be overlooked considering the rising level of distrust in the United States over Chinese military intentions. Beyond occasional ports of call, both militaries have had very little contact.

Opportunities for cooperation are rare and potential conflicts, while far from inevitable are abundant. Recent history is replete with friction including China’s missile downing of an aged satellite, U.S. weapon sales to Taiwan and the sudden cancellation in 2007 by China of the USS Kitty Hawk visit to Hong Kong.

With a far more advanced and experienced military, the U.S. should nevertheless welcome China as an equal member in the effort, stressing the multilateral approach to countering the piracy threat. In particular the U.S. should look for ways to interact with the Chinese if and when a mutual anti-piracy engagement presents itself.

With a three-ship contingent en route including helicopters and special forces, China appears ready for military intervention focusing, at a minimum, on information-gathering and interdiction efforts. China is clearly looking for opportunities to test its navy in its first significant projection of naval force in modern history.

Communication and transparency, essential to building international confidence in China’s involvement, may be the biggest challenge. Will naval forces act to thwart piracy attempts on non-Chinese flagged or manned vessels, or will they take a far more limited role and simply relay distress information, passively observing and learning from the rest of the international fleet? The precedent for multinational forces acting to save a Chinese vessel, Zhengua 4, and three other ships that were attacked in mid-December should inspire greater Chinese multilateral engagement.

A more aggressive Chinese stance, including attacks on mainland Somalia, even though authorized by the United Nations, would be a marked departure from a historically incremental defense policy. China’s military and political leadership has a great deal at stake in broadening its overseas naval role.

As power projection capabilities and national interests expand to support a more integrated economy, greater Chinese military involvement in world affairs is expected. But a high-risk ground attack in an unstable region with worldwide media attention is unlikely. The added risk of civilian casualties and getting bogged down in urban conflict would push the limits of China’s current risk tolerance for operations beyond its own borders.

For Japan, currently caught up in political wrangling over the mandate for naval deployment, joining the international effort is critical. Pirates have targeted Japanese interests in the past (taking hostage a Japanese-leased Panamanian-flagged vessel in July 2008 and seizing the Golden Nori, a Japanese vessel carrying benzene, in late 2007). Under Article 82 of the Self-Defense law, Japan can send ships to protect Japanese flagged or manned vessels beyond the reach of its Coast Guard.

A debate on further expansion of the mission to broadly support international efforts is complicated by historical views on constitutional limits of Japan’s Self-Defense Force. This would likely take months to hash out in the divided Diet but should not restrict an immediate, if limited, deployment.

Japan risks further deterioration of its image abroad if it does not quickly join the international anti-piracy efforts. The perception of an increasingly insular Japan stands in stark contrast to Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Garnering the support required to expand its role in the U.N. would be bolstered by quick action and significantly diminished without it.

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama is less than a week away from taking command of the world’s most formidable military. The momentum generated from preliminary cooperation in fighting sea piracy should be used to initiate a groundbreaking trilateral security dialogue later this year.

If coordination runs smoothly, multilateral anti-piracy drills could be run simulating threats to the vital Malacca Strait — a key artery of trade for the U.S., Japan and China. If cooperation does not materialize, Chinese efforts are primarily observational, or Japanese domestic considerations hinder a military contribution, regional security cooperation will stall yet again.

The U.S., China and Japan should capitalize on the moment, begin the difficult process of building a more secure East Asia, and start the new year with productive engagement on an issue of clear mutual benefit.

Brian P. Klein is a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow based in Tokyo. © 2009 OpinionAsia

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