As speculation simmers about the coming together of alliances or coalitions to counterbalance, deter, or confront the People’s Republic of China (PRC), such as an Asian NATO, a Quad plus, or a possible invitation to Japan to join the long-standing Anglo-Saxon “5-eyes” intelligence club (consisting of the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada), a new multilateral institution bringing together resident and outside powers for mutual security action has been largely overlooked.
Tucked away in North East Asia for the last two years, the Enforcement Coordination Cell (ECC) is a multilateral staff headquarts that includes Japanese, South Korean and French navies with their Australia-Canada-New Zealand-UK-USA “five eyes” counterparts and may be considered a hidden gem of Asia-Pacific security cooperation. So why has hardly anyone heard of it?
The ECC coordinates the collection and fusion of information on violations of UN sanctions on North Korea (DPRK). The cell is based on the US Navy 7th Fleet ship USS Blue Ridge, but draws on data collected by the ships, planes and other surveillance platforms and mechanisms in a coalition that could be called an Asian ‘Five Eyes + 3”. According to US government officials “The effort is primarily focused on illicit North Korea exports of coal and refined petroleum” and looks at trans-shipments of fuels aimed at getting around sanctions. Here is how the ECC was described in the 2019 US Indo Pacific Strategy Report –
“PARTNERSHIPS WITH PURPOSE
An important example of partnerships with purpose is the Enforcement Coordination Cell (ECC) in Yokosuka, Japan. Commanded by USINDOPACOM and executed by U.S. Seventh Fleet, the United States is working sideby-side with South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom at a single headquarters to enforce the UNSCR sanctions regime against North Korea and the illicit transfer of oil and ship-to-ship transfers in the East China Sea and Korea Bay. The ECC allows us to work closely with our allies and partners to manage, coordinate, and de-conflict our efforts and is an importantfacilitator of transparent collaboration betweenour allies and partners at sea and in the air.”
The ECC is a curious animal, though. It does not fit neatly with any of the normal categories or criteria of coalitions, and in some ways it bucks the received wisdom on the limits of what is politically and operationally possible in this region.
1. It is a multinational mechanism that is not framed by a treaty or explicit diplomatic framework. Its purpose is to monitor UN sanctions, and so you might think it would come under the UN rear command that has been based in Japan since the 1950s, when the Korean War ended. But it doesn’t. It is not even clear from reading reports to the relevant UN sanctions committee that the information it collects goes to the Security Council. For whatever reasons, this is a case where adhocracy may be more operationally successful than it might be in a formal diplomatic framework like an ‘Asian NATO’, a ‘Quad’, or even the full United Nations Organisation that provides its rationale.
2. Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) have their differences. Territorial disputes over islands, rancor over the history of the ‘comfort women’, and most recently a legal dispute over forced labour from the WWII era that has spilled over into toxic threats on trade and investment, as well as adding an irritant to important diplomatic, intelligence and security ties. And yet, in the ECC, Japanese and Korean armed forces cooperate on monitoring sanctions on the DPRK.
3. The ECC demonstrates how many countries from outside North East Asia are willing to commit to security in the region. This is not a NATO mission, but it includes officers from the UK, Canada and France. Australia and New Zealand are also taking part in the cell as well as providing advanced platforms for surveillance. There has even been speculation that a German navy vessel that is planned to sail to the region in 2021 might take on the enforcement monitoring role for a spell.
4. Perhaps as or more significant than the countries who are in this multinational force are those who are out. UN Security Council Permanent Members China and Russia – who after all voted for the sanctions on DPRK – are not only outside the ECC structure, some of their behaviour at sea suggests that they do not welcome the presence of a multinational force in the region.
Canada refers to its contribution as “Operation NEON“, and seems set to maintain a long term commitment. “During 2019 and 2020 and into 2021, Canada will periodically deploy military ships, aircraft and personnel to conduct surveillance operations to identify suspected maritime sanctions evasion activities, in particular ship-to-ship transfers of fuel and other commodities banned by the United Nations Security Council resolutions (UNSCR). This contribution will bolster the integrity of the global sanctions regime against North Korea.” On Opeation NEON Canada deploys a naval frigate, a supply vessel, and long range patrol aircraft. The surveillance platform CP-140 Aurora, crew and supporting personnel operate from Kadena airbase in Japan and The Canadian Armed Forces “may also provide up to three permanent liaison officers to the Enforcement Coordination Cell, a multinational staff headquarters” in Yokosuka.
In an innovative twist, the Canadian operation is linked to an information fusion project run by the oldest UK thinktank, RUSI. RUSI’s “Project Sandstone“, is an effort to systematically analyse and expose North Korean illicit shipping networks using open source data-mining and data-fusion techniques to spot activities of interest without reference to classified data. According to the Government of Canada “an unclassified set of Canadian data is transferred to Global Affairs Canada, who have contracted the Royal United Services Institute to conduct a deep analysis of the data using open-source information. The Royal United Services Institute prepares and releases reports to Global Affairs Canada that highlight and identify networks and individuals that may be involved in activity that supports sanctions violations (e.g. financing, insuring, etc.). Some reports have been shared with partner nations, and the intent is to further share a consolidated report with the UN.”
The ECC has recieved only limited exposure outside the specialist defence media, with this September 2018 WSJ article proving the rare exception. Does it deserve more attention?
With no end in sight to the stand-off between the DPRK and the UN over the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program, the ECC is becoming a more or less permanent fixture in the region. If it were to collect more members and aquire more tasks, that would not be the first time an ad hoc mechanism has evolved to a permanent feature shaping the security landscape and altering the calculus of regional actors. Meanwhile, it provides a platform for cooperation among a set of “like minded” nations to build up interoperability, regional situation awareness, and a reason to maintain a presence in the region should other contingencies arise.