Four months since the major oil spill disaster, the ghost of the Wakashio continues to haunt the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. It has rapidly turned into a very Japanese affair, that has revealed the lengths to which Japan is willing to go to protect its own interests, even at the expense of breaking international law.
For Japan, the oil spill disaster is unravelling a major plank of its foreign policy strategy. Over the past four years, Japan had carefully placed Mauritius at the center of its military, strategic and diplomatic offensive across the Indian Ocean.
The Wakashio has also shone a light on Japan’s strategy to use aid as a foreign policy and corporate support tool, rather than to put the needs of recipient nations first. Over $280 million had been given to Mauritius (half as loans), with a specific promise last year by Japan’s recent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, that Japanese radars, boats and infrastructure would prevent a major maritime incident from occurring in Mauritius. How could the Wakashio – a Japanese vessel as large as a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier – have then been allowed to occur? The Wakashio has exposed the shortcomings of Japan’s aid to Africa programs. It is as much a failure for Japan’s maritime security promises as it is for the Indian Navy-run Coastguard of Mauritius.
The stakes could not have been higher with the rising influence of China across the Indian Ocean.
Given the close relations enjoyed with U.S. President Trump and Indian Prime Minister Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe presided over an expansionist and aggressive Japanese foreign and military strategy across Africa and the Indian Ocean over the past decade. A political crisis in Mauritius three years ago with a new Prime Minister, a weak Government and hollowed-out institutions opened up the window of opportunity that Japan had been looking for.
With the world looking the other way, Japan and its partners rapidly flexed its muscles in Mauritius, as a base for their broader Indian Ocean goals.
However, the Wakashio oil spill is now revealing a darker side to Japan’s expansionist foreign policy and how quickly Japan’s corporate interests overtook its foreign policy objectives. It is a tale of shady defense deals, opaque aid, high level corruption and powerful corporate interests who wield a stronger influence than the Japanese state.
Japan’s response to the oil spill is shining a light on who holds the reigns of power in Japan and the lengths to which the Japanese Government has gone to avoid any international scrutiny of these powerful corporate interests – even at the risk of pushing the boundaries of international law.
The real victims of this tragedy have been the poorer fishing communities along the coastline drenched by the toxic oil spill and suffering the health and economic consequences of the disaster, as well as Mauritius’ unique marine environment that is home to some of the world’s most unique species. The devastation caused to their lives and the environment were seen as secondary to putting Japan’s corporate, geopolitical and strategic interests first.
Here are six drivers behind Japan’s strong interests in Mauritius, all of which have started to unravel with the Wakashio oil spill:
- Diplomatic: Japan’s search for a UN Security Council seat
- Aid as a Foreign Policy Tool: Japan’s aid with strings attached
- Military: access to a Top Secret military base
- Corporate: Japan’s Keiretsu business culture
- Fishing: Japan’s powerful fishing interests
- Climate: Japan’s rejection of climate and ocean science
This is why these drivers matter and what they mean for Japan’s role in the world.
Context: Japan’s diplomatic interest in Mauritius
A decade ago, Japan was facing two big challenges. The first was the realization it was being outcompeted by China across Africa and many small island states. The second was the slow progress of the Japanese economy that had plagued the country for the past three decades since the 1980s.
In a desire to find a way out of these twin challenges, Japan elected the outspoken Shinzo Abe as Prime Minister in 2012. He ended up becoming Japan’s longest serving Prime Minister and dominating political life in Japan for a decade.
Until his resignation just three weeks after the August 6 Wakashio oil spill on August 28.
Abe was a controversial Prime Minister, known for his close ties to big business, and his pro-fossil fuel, pro-military, nationalist policies that inflamed tensions with China and triggered widespread protests by climate advocates. In many ways, he was seen as the Donald Trump of Japan given their shared policy outlook on many issues (e.g., fossil fuels, climate change, militarization, trade, immigration and China). Abe was the first foreign leader to visit the newly elected Donald Trump, breaking diplomatic protocol by meeting the then President-elect in Trump Tower in New York in 2016.
Abe tried to relaunch the Japanese economy in several ways, including supporting his wife with gender equality programs (a strategy they named Womenomics). However, toward the end of his premiership, his party was embroiled in accusations of political misconduct and his popularity had plummeted as both he and his wife had become embroiled in several major financial scandals.
One of Abe’s biggest priorities in office had been an expansionist foreign policy adventure into Africa and small island states. Strategically, these nations were seen as powerful votes for Japan at the United Nations – pawns in a new Great Game over the Indian Ocean.
This was particularly important as Japan has been pushing for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council – as well as an expanded UN Security Council with India and Brazil – as a counterweight to China’s rising influence in Asia.
The Wakashio incident has shown what boundaries Japan was willing to push to secure these UN votes – including the international shipping laws it was prepared to break – and raised questions about Japan’s moral leadership in the world.
1. Japan’s desire for a UN Security Council Seat
The rising tension with China forced Japan to seek new ways to build diplomatic alliances. One of the biggest opportunities was with the 55 countries of Africa and 40 other small state nations of the world (defined by the World Bank as small island states and countries with populations fewer than 3 million).
Securing 95 votes in the 193 member United Nations (49%), would be very powerful for Japan, especially in its quest to obtain a powerful UN Security Council Seat, in the event of escalating tensions with China.
Abe sought to attract the votes of African and small island states in two ways.
Abe’s Africa Strategy
First, Abe aggressively pushed Japan’s interests across Africa. One of his main vehicles was Japan’s Development Agency (JICA) which channeled over $80 billion through Abe’s Africa initiatives – $60 billion of Japanese Aid through the TICAD Japan-Africa program, and $20 billion through promised ‘corporate partnerships.’
This program later proved controversial among the G20 for being discovered to tie Japanese Aid to support for Japanese companies who were the only ones allowed to bid for many of these services (Japan was singled out by Oxfam as the worst culprit of the Aid-Tying Scandal in 2018).
Abe’s practice of tying aid to Japanese businesses, was widely criticized as a soft subsidy to advance large Japanese corporate interests, rather than serving the needs of recipient nations. It had the impact of outcompeting and undermining the local private sector who had previously been providing these services, and benefitting those who were seen as close to the recipient Governments. The strict protocols around aid transparency and procurement that other countries had in place, were not followed by Japan, as aid was increasingly deployed as a foreign policy tool.
Abe’s Ocean Strategy
To secure the support of small island states, Abe launched a Commission called the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, along with Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, who was also seeking a UN Security Council Seat for Norway. Norway eventually secured this seat in June this year.
The intention was to appeal to small island states to win their influence, by offering the possibility of new economic pathways for these countries.
Rather than pushing forward policies for sustainability, the panel (whose final report was released last week after the UN Security Council vote) was filled with pro-fossil fuel Heads of States such as the current leaders of Australia, Indonesia, Nauru, Ghana, Kenya, all of whom have a controversial track record with the ocean, climate and energy policies.
The report ended up being largely viewed as a cover to continue Japan’s extractive policies toward the ocean, which were pro-fossil fuel, pro-offshore exploration, pro-whaling, pro-seabed mining and the continuation of high levels of emissions by Japan’s powerful shipping industry. Hardly a vision of ocean sustainability.
This stance appealed to certain island states (e.g., Nauru), but not to others (e.g., Marshall Islands). A third group of island states, such as Mauritius, appeared to be more open to being convinced.
Abenomics and the ‘Three Arrows’ program
The domestic selling point for this strategy, was that Abe’s African and ocean adventures could serve as a stimulus for large Japanese companies. The Japanese economy had been in the doldrums for four decades: a situation of low growth, low inflation, and low interest rates. The situation was so bad that the world’s leading economists, such as Mohamed El-Erian regularly warned other nations about how to avoid ‘Japanification’ and the ‘Japan Trap.’
Japanese companies preferred to keep piles of cash rather than invest in innovation, as the world demanded greater investment in clean technology to move toward a low carbon economy.
In 2012, following the Eurozone crisis, Abe announced a plan to re-launch the Japanese economy. It was a plan that relied on heavy fiscal intervention, known as the ‘Three Arrows Abenomics program.’ It was a largely pro-business stimulus, and the Africa initiative was an extension of one of the Three Arrows by encouraging Japanese businesses to expand into Africa with strong fiscal support from the Japanese Government.
So the initial strategy to secure votes for Japan for the UN Security Council, soon morphed into softer support for large Japanese businesses close to both the Japanese Government and recipient Governments in Africa.
Mauritius a core part of Abe’s Africa strategy
Mauritius became a core part of this strategy. For decades, Mauritius was seen as a stable political and economic force across the continent, frequently topping most ‘Ease of Doing Business’ charts for Africa. Yet, it was only in a moment of political crisis and weakness in Mauritius that Japan saw the opportunity to deepen its political and economic ties with a new Prime Minister, and make strong foreign policy demands.
Two years after the 2014 election of 86-year-old Anerood Jugnauth, the Mauritian Prime Minister suddenly announced he was stepping down. Rather than an election, as the local media and other political parties had been demanding at the time, he controversially appointed his son as Prime Minister, who was then the Minister of Information Technology, Pravind Jugnauth.
At the same time the Jugnauth Government had been attempting to change the Constitution of Mauritius, and reduce the independence of the Mauritian judicial system, after a series of corruption scandals that he had become embroiled in at the time. In order to change the constitution, Mauritius requires 75% of the 60 member National Parliament to vote in favor of the Constitutional Change. The resignation of the Government’s coalition partner in protest of the attempt to change the Constitution, the PMSD party, with 11 members of parliament meant that Constitutional Change was now no longer possible.
This meant new options had to be explored ahead of the controversial (and still disputed) 2019 elections.
A shotgun marriage: Japan’s political relationship with Mauritius
Over this period, the intensity of relations between Mauritius and Japan dramatically changed.
Official records from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs show that over the previous 15 years there had been an average of one major diplomatic visit between each country a year (14 visits in 12 years). Suddenly four years ago, the number of senior officials visiting each country shot up three-fold each year (13 exchanges in 3 years). This means that there have been as many senior dignitary visits between Japan and Mauritius in the last four years as the previous twelve.
From the Mauritius side, there were three high profile Ministerial meetings to Japan in the past two years: Mauritian Attorney General Maneesh Gobin in October 2018, followed by Mauritian Minister of Transport (and current Minister of Foreign Affairs) Nando Bodha in January 2019, and then the Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth in August 2019.
These visits were strengthened with various institutional links.
A Japanese Embassy was opened in Mauritius in 2017 and Mauritius opened an Economic Development Board Office in Tokyo in 2019. The activities of the Mauritius Economic Development Board Offices in locations abroad receive a lot less scrutiny than that of an Embassy tied to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and is designed to build links with Japanese companies.
What was even more surprising was the high level of interest Japan suddenly started taking in Mauritius. Mauritius has a population of 1.3 million, yet there were only 53 Japanese nationals residing in Mauritius (as of December 2017), and 80 Mauritian nationals residing in Japan (June 2018), according to Japan Government figures. This is a fraction compared to the large Mauritian diaspora in the U.K., France, Australia, Canada and other countries around the world, where the diaspora population is even larger than the Mauritian population currently living on the set of islands.
So despite political rhetoric about the long and historic ties between the two countries since Mauritius received independence from the U.K. in 1968, it has only been in the past four years that the relationship between Japan and Mauritius really changed, spurred by a new urgency from Japan.
2. Japan’s aid as a foreign policy tool
Japan has earned a poor reputation among the OECD group of 20 wealthiest nations for using aid to advance its foreign policy and corporate interests, rather than using aid to advance programs for the common good (e.g., climate change). This has opened up accusations of cronyism.
Even the amount of Japanese aid given to climate change programs pales in comparison to the billions of dollars Japanese businesses have received from large heavy fuel oil power stations across Africa (such as the $120 million St Louis Power Station in Mauritius that is embroiled in a major African Development Bank corruption scandal linked to large Japanese interests and bribery of Government officials).
This has allowed Japan to control the narrative in many countries, and was one of the main criticisms of the oil spill response in Mauritius, where Japan’s ‘support’ to Mauritius pushed away international scientists from friendly nations (e.g., U.S., Australia, U.K., France, Canada) with genuine expertise in major oil spill responses (including local, independent Mauritian scientists) to exclusively use Japanese scientists, who did not understand the local ecology.
Japan’s aid to Mauritius in recent years is a classic example of aid that is not transparent.
According to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, $280 million of development assistance has been given by Japan to Mauritius. These figures are only available until 2016 (when relations between Japan and Mauritius really started to deepen). Requests from Forbes to the Japanese Embassy in Mauritius for the latest aid figures post-2016 have not been responded to since October 19.
Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also reveal that the figures for Japan’s development assistance to Mauritius until 2016 break down into:
- US$160 million loans from Japan
- US$60 million grants from Japan
- US$60 million technical consultancy from Japan
Much of the $160 million loan includes a $70 million loan for a large sewage system in the tourist town of Grand Baie awarded in 2010, when the current Prime Minister had a 14 month spell as Minister of Finance. Jugnauth was forced to step down as Minister of Finance in 2011 over a corruption scandal linked to a family-owned hospital (Medpoint).
Japan Prime Minister offered maritime security assistance
What became immediately apparent, was Japan’s focus on maritime security, as well as industrial fishery operations that the Japanese fleets would use. This is what makes the Wakashio incident particularly embarrassing for Japan.
It revealed that much of the equipment promised by Japan either did not work or had not appeared. In the past four years, Japan had offered tens of millions of dollars of aid to Mauritius for maritime security, fishing and radar installations.
Also notably in the meeting between the Prime Minister of Japan and Prime Minister of Mauritius in Tokyo on 29 August 2019, Prime Minister Abe stated that Japan intends to “cooperate with Mauritius to develop the Indian Ocean as a free and open ocean, and that, to that end, Japan will support strengthening of maritime security capacity through the recently signed The Economic and Social Development Programme.”
Details of ‘The Economic and Social Development Programme’ have never been released and requests to the Japanese Embassy about aid disbursements to Mauritius since 2016 have not been responded to.
The meeting note from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs goes on to say, that “In response, Prime Minister Jugnauth stated that Mauritius places importance on strengthening connectivity, and he will support efforts to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific. Prime Minister Jugnauth also expressed his gratitude for the support provided by Japan to date, and stated his expectation for further support from Japan in such areas as disaster prevention and measures for maritime accidents.”
To place this in context, on 29 August 2019 the Prime Ministers of Japan and Mauritius specifically discussed the risk of maritime accidents and Japan’s assistance to Mauritius to avoid such an incident from occurring. Yet just twelve months later, a large Japanese vessel – as large as a Nimitz-class nuclear powered aircraft carrier – was able to sail for four days in a straight line at a cruising speed of 11 knots right into one of Mauritius’s most important coral reefs and historical regions of the country.
Something does not add up. Either Japan’s technology does not work – Mauritius was sold a dud – or there was something else going on. If it was that easy for a drunken captain (as was initially claimed) to sail such a vessel through all the layers of Japan’s maritime security apparatus, there are some serious questions that must be answered. While Panama Maritime Authorities (where the Japanese vessel is registered) has tried to imply that alcohol was a factor, no evidence has been shown of this (the vessel should have been equipped with alcohol breathalyzers), and the captain of the Wakashio has not publicly commented on the cause of the grounding.
Major failures in Japanese maritime security equipment to Mauritius
Three items jump out from recent public announcements of Japanese assistance to Mauritius, even though the final amount of aid assistance to Mauritius was not disclosed by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
- Radars in 2018: Government of Japan gave a non-refundable grant of $12 million (1.34 billion Japanese Yen) for the improvement of Mauritius’ radar systems. Specifically, Meteorological Radar Systems and the ‘S-Band Doppler Solid State Radar’ system. Given how the Wakashio ended up on Mauritius’ coast, the state of Mauritius’ radars provided by Japan has attracted particular scrutiny.
It was particularly concerning to see senior executives from Wakashio’s operator, Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL) say in a press conference on August 9 that bad weather was a factor to blame for the crash. MOL’s Head of Safety and Managing Executive Officer, Masanori Kato, said that the original voyage plan was to sail 10 to 20 miles off the south side of Mauritius Island, but “the waves were high and we were shifting north to avoid cliffs.” MOL has not responded to Forbes’ questions calling for an explanation of why such a statement was issued that does not match with the facts shown at the time.
Satellite analyses of the region at the time do not reveal any adverse weather patterns in close vicinity of Mauritius, and certainly none that impacted the trajectory of any other large ocean-bound vessel. Satellite analysis from both global maritime analytics firm, Windward and Geollect, also reveal that the Wakashio had been on a straight line course for four days before it struck Mauritius’ reefs.
So where was the accuracy of the radars provided by Japan to strengthen Mauritius’ maritime security?
- Fast Patrol Boats in 2019: The Government of Japan awarded a grant of $3 million (300 million Japanese Yen) to Mauritius to purchase six High-Speed Patrol Boats for the Mauritius National Coast Guard. However, it was unclear how these patrol boats fit in with Mauritius’ national maritime security plan and only Japanese companies were allowed to bid for these vessels. Given the controversy about why the Wakashio was not intercepted, questions will be asked about the strategy, quality and procurement process that were followed by Japanese aid authorities. The ‘Economic and Social Development Programme’ that is referred to in the procurement documents has never been made available for public scrutiny.
Given what has also been revealed about how Japanese shipowners make heavy use of offshore ‘Flags of Convenience’ locations to shield corporate identity, questions will likely be asked in Japan whether shipping companies like Wakashio owner, Nagashiki Shipping would have even been eligible to bid for such contracts (all of Nagshiki Shipping’s vessels were registered in offshore ‘Flags of Convenience’ nations), with significant concerns about their ownership.
- Medical response to oil spill in 6 August 2020: a grant of $3 million for Mauritius to purchase medical equipment related to address Covid-19, with an additional $1 million non-refundable grant under review. At the time, Mauritius had no Covid-19 cases. Yet hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic ship heavy oil was about to leak from the Wakashio. Villagers had been calling for medical help, but were being ignored in an attempt to underplay the health crisis brewing due to the oil spill around several important fishing village communities. Why was assistance for Covid-19 (which was not present in Mauritius at the time until brought onto the island by Saudi Arabian officials during the oil spill response on September 22) being offered on the eve of when the Japanese vessel was about to leak its oil into Mauritius’ lagoons? Surely these funds should have been diverted to addressing the health needs of villagers impacted by the oil spill?
The nature and timing of this grant is interesting. The Mauritian Prime Minster had described on the BBC how Mauritius was Covid-19 free. Yet, this grant was also made on the day that the Wakashio split and oil started gushing out. As many villagers around the site of the oil spill complain about not receiving appropriate medical attention, there is anger that these funds were not used for local community support.
Specific questions will be asked about the first two projects, as the Mauritian Prime Minister revealed in Parliament on 18 August (pages 25-29) that most of the radars around Mauritius had been out of order at the time of the Wakashio incident. Similarly, many questions have been raised about the role and location of the Indian Navy-run Mauritian Coastguard. If Japanese grants had been awarded in 2019 for high speed patrol boats, where were these vessels and why were they not deployed to intervene with the Wakashio?
The Wakashio disaster is as much a failure of India and Japan’s provision of maritime security services to Mauritius, especially with the controversial decision to allow Indian Naval Officers to run the Mauritian Coastguard, which included supervision of all equipment needed to keep Mauritius safe.
Tied-aid and lack of transparency
There has never been a full independent assessment of the influences or effectiveness of Japan’s aid programs or their procurement processes, which tend to favor Japanese businesses. Japan tied $4.2 billion of aid to Japanese businesses, a massive increase during the time that Abe had been in office. The lack of transparency by Japanese aid authorities has also been highlighted.
Oxfam’s Senior Aid Policy adviser, Jeroen Kwakkenbos, has expressed concerns that aid is being used to as export credits than to support the communities being targeted. “Instead of fighting inequality and eradicating poverty, governments will use aid to subsidize their own firms,” he warned earlier this year.
Jan Van de Poel, policy and advocacy manager at the NGO network Eurodad, told Development Aid publication, Devex earlier this year that the increase in tied aid in 2018 represented “a remarkable surge in the amount of aid that puts donors’ commercial priorities before the priorities of people living in poverty.”
It is also important to recognize that Japan does not give this aid for free. In return, Japan had been seeking to secure diplomatic and military partnerships as well as billions of dollars of value from tuna fisheries, energy and other major contracts linked to large Japanese business interests.
3. Japan desire for access to a Top Secret Indian Ocean Military Base: Agalega
Both India and Japan have been facing rising tensions with China. However, it has only been under recent U.S. foreign policy under President Trump, that this has now translated into tacit approval of Japan and India increasing their military presence in the Indian Ocean, against the protests of many island nations who are there.
As a counterweight to China, India and Japan have been engaging in a series of joint military and navy exercises and agreements across the Indian Ocean.
These joint military exercises, a three-day affair called JIMEX, are a naval partnership between Indian and Japanese military forces and this year, took place in the Indian Ocean just a month after the Wakashio oil spill.
This is in addition to a four-way defense agreement called Exercise Malabar (involving the Navies of Japan, India, U.S. and Australia), which also took place in the Indian Ocean in November, and involved over a hundred ships, aircraft carriers, submarines, aircraft, and thousands of sailors (the U.S. alone had 6000 troops on its aircraft carrier group supporting the exercise). This was the first time the four nations have co-operated together militarily in the Indian Ocean, and there have been calls for this four-way partnership to become a more formal alliance, in a pact called ‘The Quad.’
It is also important to note that under President Trump, the heads of state of all four nations – the U.S., India, Japan and Australia – had been pursuing a strong fossil fuel policy in breach of the Paris Climate Agreement. This has created a new climate geopolitical fault line where the European Union, U.K., and China have been pushing more ambitious climate policies and ‘The Quad’ of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia had been pushing the planet to the limit with greater investments in coal-powered power plants. For small island nations more at the mercy of the climate crisis than geopolitical maneuvers, the health of the marine environment was a much bigger priority. This was something Japan failed to understand during the Wakashio oil spill response.
The growing militarization of the Indian Ocean has been opposed by most of the island nations in the region, such as the Maldives, Seychelles, and until recently, Mauritius, over fears that they will be drawn into a broader geopolitical conflict.
The September 2020 Japan-India Defense Agreement
At the start of the Japan-Indian Naval Exercises (JIMEX), on 24 September 2020, Japan signed a Defense Agreement with India. As part of this agreement Japan was granted access to Indian Naval Bases for ‘logistics’ reasons. This broad agreement covers all partnerships (such as aircraft landing, port services, and transport of goods but excludes munitions). It also extends to India’s bases abroad.
This is particularly relevant for Mauritius.
The current Mauritian Government is facing protests about its plans to effectively ‘sell’ an island to India. Not only has the policy of militarizing Mauritian territory been highly contentious (it was a deliberate strategy of Mauritius since independence not to have a military force to maintain peaceful internal and external relations), but the way that this base has been secured has been particularly controversial in displacing the local island population.
India’s search for a military base in the Indian Ocean
India had been desperately attempting to build a $550 million military base in the Indian Ocean. After initially saying yes, both Seychelles and Maldives withdrew amid large protests from islanders in both countries, fearful of being drawn into a wider military conflict and distrustful of the Indian Government’s relations with many Indian Ocean neighbors.
India had initially approached Seychelles (Assumption Island) and had wanted to build an airstrip and naval jetty. Amid protests by islanders and parliamentarians in Seychelles in 2018, the agreement was scrapped, and the Seychelles President lost the election in 2020, the first time the governing party had lost power in 44 years.
Maldives had been facing similar pressure from India to allow a helicopter base. However, Maldivians had become wary of India’s motives and had to set a deadline for India to remove its India-gifted helicopters from Maldives. India has spent $1.4 billion in aid to Maldives in what has been seen as an attempt to deepen India’s defense ties with the Maldives. The Maldivian President has also said he does not want any military base on the Maldives.
Mauritius was the only hope for India to secure such a base, and significant amounts of effort have been spent wooing the Mauritian Government to rapidly move ahead with the development of such a base.
Given the large costs, and India’s weak economic situation that was exacerbated with Covid-19, it was unclear how such an effort was going to be financed. With such a defense agreement between Japan and India, it is not inconceivable that the access to Indian Naval Bases could have been granted in exchange for funding the construction of the base and other financial aid from Japan to India (such as the agreement by Japan to provide India with high-speed trains by 2023 that was announced at the same time as the Japan-India Military Base Agreement). This would have been a near-identical replica of the U.K.-U.S. agreement over how the other Indian Ocean military base, Diego Garcia, was funded and built in 1963.
The Wakashio grounding and the way the oil spill response has been handled has revealed that Japan and India are more interested in putting forward their own military and corporate interests than that of the citizens of the Indian Ocean island nations they have publicly claimed to help.
If Japan or India were not able to guarantee the safety of the Mauritius coastline, or ensure the rule of law was followed in how the clean up operation was conducted, then both countries will lose any claims of moral integrity in the eyes of the world. It is by allowing corporate actors in Japan to have gotten away with the oil spill, that has angered Mauritians who are more deeply wedded to the impact on Mauritius’ marine life than the broader geopolitical concerns going on.
It also raises even deeper questions whether there are genuine military needs to justify the militarization of Japan, or whether such a military build up has become a vehicle support large Japanese businesses close to the Japanese Government, and find a way out of ‘The Japan Economic Trap.’
4. Japan’s Keiretsu business culture
To understand what happened with the Wakashio, it is important to understand how business is conducted in Japan. One of the biggest influences is the role of the Keiretsu. The Keiretsu are large groups of companies with overlapping and interlocking business relationships.
Four major Keiretsu dominate Japan today: Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, and Yasuda.
These business groups had also dominated every aspect of pre-war Imperial Japan, with family ties going back several hundred years to the Edo Period (1600-1868). The Meiji Restoration in 1868 marked the moment that led to the rapid industrialization and modernization of Japan, as the country adopted Western ideas. This also included the militarization of Japan through military procurement via Zaibatsu business groups (similar business groupings to the Keiretsu in the run up to World War 2).
The turbulent period of World War 2 and Japan’s surrender led to a major decision for the U.S. occupying forces. Several of these major business groups who were most closely associated with militarization of Japan were broken up. However, over the course of the 20th century and early 21st century, these hidden business alliances started to form again.
Today, one of the most powerful Keiretsu is Mitsui, the second largest business conglomerate in Japan. As the economy of Japan expanded in the decades following the war, Mitsui became one of the most powerful conglomerates in the world, with a sprawling network of business and political relationships covering almost every business domain from oil & gas exploration, global shipping, banking, engineering, naval shipyards, technology, steel works.
In many ways, these Keiretsus have become the Japanese state, strongly influencing Government policies and becoming key to the success of any aspiring politician. In most Western countries, such business influences would be considered monopolies or cartels and broken up under anti-competition laws.
Companies associated with Mitsui have appear several times in the Wakashio story.
The rise of Mitsui
Mitsui is one of the most powerful companies in the world. It is the second largest corporate group of holdings in Japan, which was until recently, the world’s second largest economy. It has a controversial 300 year history, including being associated with the military build up of Japan in the Second World War.
Although Mitsui’s lawyers have made clear that the Mitsui since the Second World War is a separate legal entity from that pre-dating the war, Mitsui’s executives prominently refer to the heritage and leaders of Mitsui from pre-war times in Mitsui’s Annual Reports.
Mitsui’s role appears several times in the Wakashio story:
Ship owner and operator: Mitsui is a major investor in Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL), the second largest ship operator in the world. Half of MOL’s fleet is made up of oil and gas tankers as well as bulk carriers that are used to transport coal. Some of MOL’s biggest customers are companies that parent company Mitsui is an investor in. In particular, major oil and gas fields, coal and mining interests around the world. MOL generates over $14 billion in revenue a year, and is in a close partnership with Japan’s other large multi-billion dollar shipping lines, K-Line and NYK-Line (a global shipping partnership called ONE).
Shipbuilding, ship engines and Power Plants: Mitsui is a shareholder in one of Japan’s largest shipbuilding companies, $8 billion revenue a year Mitsui Engineering and Shipbuilding (Mitsui E&S), with almost 15,000 employees. Mitsui E&S is a major naval construction company, and has been a winner of several major Japanese Navy contracts to build military vessels under Japan’s growing militarization.
Mitsui E&S also builds ship engines, such as the one used on the Wakashio. These ship engines can also be used for power stations. In 1990, Mitsui E&S bought Danish energy giant, Burmeister & Wain Scandinavian Contractor (BWSC). This was a strategic choice by Mitsui E&S to increase their sales pipeline of selling ship engines as Heavy Fuel Oil power plants around the world (a specific strategy listed on BWSC’s website and Annual Reports). BWSC is known as an EPC contractor (Engineering, Procurement and Construction). BWSC developed power plants in 74 countries and has orders of over $1 billion (6.8 billion DKK). From BWSC’s Annual Report, 70% of its revenues come from building new power plants and 30% comes from ongoing maintenance work.
Ship financing and ship insurance: Mitsui is a shareholder in Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC), one of Japan’s largest financial groups and the 12th largest bank in the world by total assets. It is a major financier of power plants around the world linked to Mitsui subsidiaries, such as Delimara Power Station in Malta. Another bank with links to the Mitsui Keiretsu is Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank with $500 billion of assets. It is one of the largest financers of shipbuilding in the world. This year, it signed up to a set of finance principles that was supposed to decarbonize the shipping industry, the Poseidon Principles. These principles have proven controversial as shipping pushed through regulations last month that violated the Paris Climate Agreement.
Through a third division, MOL, Mitsui is indirectly one of the world’s largest ship insurers. Ship insurance in Japan is run through an effective monopoly called the Japan P&I Club, one of thirteen that govern global shipping.
The Japan P&I Club is capitalized by shipowners, and executives from MOL make up a quarter of the Board of the Japan P&I Club. The Japan P&I Club then sits on the Board of ITOPF, the oil industry body that is supposed to offer ‘independent advice’ to countries experiencing an oil spill, but somehow managed to forget to collect the evidence needed in Mauritius to measure the impact of the oil spill. This was in spite of media articles prominently highlighting the need for evidence collection in the very early days of the Wakashio oil spill, and the – what now appears to be deliberate – exclusion of independent scientists from the oil spill response effort.
Investor in fossil fuels: Mitsui is one of the world’s largest investors in oil, gas, coal and mining around the world. It was a 10% shareholder in the oil well linked to the U.S. 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, 15% shareholder in Brazilian mining giant Vale, and made billions of dollars of investments in oil, gas and coal mines around the planet from the Equator through to the Russian Arctic.
Despite Annual Reports and public statements full of how Mitsui intends to take climate change seriously, it has continued to make large investments in fossil fuel assets. In 2020, it started production with the Tempa Rossa oil field in Italy. In 2019, it acquired the rights to Grosvenor Coal Mine in Australia (which suffered a serious methane gas explosion this year shutting the mine down until 2021), was an investor in $3 billion of LNG facilities in the Arctic (through Russia), commenced production of a new Australian oil field (Greater Enfield Project), was an investor in the $16 billion LNG production in Mozambique (in Afungi) with French oil company Total. In 2018, Mitsui made a $450m investment to take over one of Australia’s largest oil and gas exploration companies, AWE Ltd, that owns Australia’s largest domestic gas field.
In 2017, Mitsui invested $900 million in a major set of coal mines in Mozambique, called the Moatize and Nacala Projects. Given pressure of climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions by 40% within the next ten years, investments in coal are highly destructive for the atmosphere given the amount of carbon dioxide emitted and is not consistent with meeting the Paris Climate Agreement targets that the Japanese Government says it is abiding by. In 2016, Mitsui made co-investments with Shell in more deepwater oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico (Kiaskias project) and $400 million in Australia’s Kipper Gas field. These are all new investments, and not the existing revenues from oil, gas and mining investments held by Mitsui.
Mitsui’s connections with major industrial disasters
Although Mitsui is one of the world’s largest investors in fossil fuels, it is also associated with several major international industrial disasters.
It held a 10% stake in the Macondo Oil Well that led to the BP Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill disaster. After initially denying that Mitsui had any responsibility for the Deepwater Horizon spill, it settled with BP for $1.1 billion (after BP had initially demanded $2.14 billion it claimed Mitsui owed). This was in return for Mitsui being indemnified from any further claims.
However, Mitsui’s subsidiary, MOEX Offshore, was then named by the U.S. Department of Justice as one of four defendants (along with BP, Transocean and Anadarko) for criminal and administrative fines and penalties. They eventually reached an additional $90 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012, the largest civil penalty under the U.S. Clean Water Act. BP ended up setting aside $41 billion for damages from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
In 2003, Mitsui invested in 15% ownership of Brazil’s mining giant, Vale, which was responsible for a mining disaster in 2019 in which 270 people died. The city of Brumadinho was devastated when a Vale dam collapsed, and the CEO of Vale was charged with homicide. With a 15% shareholding since 2003, Mitsui had the ability to appoint Board Members and participate in the management of Vale. The mining disaster raises questions about how serious Mitsui takes safety, environmental concerns and industrial incidents, as a shareholder in major oil, gas, mining and industrial operations around the world.
Mitsui uses its shipping division, MOL, to transport much of these fossil fuel products around the world, with major contracts with companies such as Vale. Its other divisions, Mitsui E&S continues to push forward with Heavy Fuel Oil power stations, which is supplied from investments made in various oil holdings around the world.
So Mitsui is a giant corporate entity heavily exposed to fossil fuels. Under Prime Minister Abe, Japan was criticized for its pro-fossil fuels policies. Mitsui was one of the main beneficiaries of this as one of Japan’s largest suppliers of coal, using MOL’s bulk carrier fleet. The Wakashio was a bulk carrier, which was chartered by MOL to transport iron ore from the port owned by Vale in Brazil, when it crashed into Mauritius.
In October 2020, it was revealed that Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway had also taken a 5% stake in Mitsui, with the intention to partner on a range of ventures.
Mitsui’s corruption scandals
Both Mitsui and its subsidiaries have had a colorful history, marked with serious allegations of corruption. Several of these scandals were associated with Power Plant Projects and Japan’s use of International Development Aid.
St Louis Power Station in Mauritius (2020)
One such incident occurred in Mauritius just a month before the grounding of the Wakashio. It was a major corruption scandal over a $120 million African Development Bank-financed Heavy Fuel Oil Power Station called St Louis, built on the St Louis river that passes through capital city Port Louis. Not only did it cost the Deputy Prime Minister of Mauritius, Ivan Collendavelloo, his job, it also led to a serious report against Mitsui’s wholly-owned Power Plant subsidiary, BWSC, by the African Development Bank. This then led to a global ban on Mitsui’s power plant division, BWSC, from participating in any power plant project funded by any multilateral or regional public finance organization (such as the World Bank, African Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, Inter-American Development Bank) for 21 months.
The full revelations shocked Mauritius and were first made public in a press release on 8 June 2020 by the African Development Bank. This followed an independent investigation by Danish law firm, Poul Schmith (Kammeradvokaten), initiated by BWSC after they received an anonymous tipoff from a whistleblower in 2018.
The ban was serious enough that Mitsui E&S (who owned BWSC) had to move from stating how strategically important BWSC was to the group earnings in 2018, to barely mentioning them in the 2020 report. The $8 billion a year Mitsui E&S that relied on BWSC contracts on favorable financing terms with major multilateral financial institutions to sell the Power Generation engines they produced, were given no choice but to disclose the difficulties Mitsui E&S were facing in their engineering (power plant) division – one of the four main pillars of the business.
The power plant division produced significant income for the broader Mitsui Keiretsu, given other strategic partnerships to supply Heavy Fuel Oil to power plants around the world (rather than alternative, more sustainable sources of fuel or renewable energy).
At the same time, BWSC was forced to state that it had to pivot its business strategy in a press release on 20 November 2020 to focus on maintenance and operations rather than the bidding for new power plants. An important part of this pivot is likely to have been due to the Africa Development Bank decision to ban BWSC following the discovery of bid-rigging and bribery practices in its activities in Mauritius.
Prior allegations of bid-rigging
The details of the allegations are important. Local media in Mauritius had reported that information about the bid had been leaked by a senior Government official to influential local consultants contracted by BWSC (a Mauritian engineering company and BWSC’s consultant were named in the ongoing investigation), which allowed the Mitsui owned subsidiary (BWSC) to win the power plant bid by submitting an offer priced at the right level. It involved illegally obtaining sensitive bid information on what its competitors were pricing their bids at, and allowed BWSC to price its bids appropriately to win the tender. A second Power Plant on Rodrigues (part of Mauritius) linked to the same Mitsui E&S subsidiary (BWSC) is also now under investigation by Anti-Corruption Authorities in Mauritius after procurement irregularities were discovered there too. BWSC has built 10 Power Plants in Mauritius over the past 20 years (Fort George – 1995, St Louis – 2004 and 2016, Fort Victoria – 2009 and 2011, Rodrigues Port Mathurin – 1994, 1996, 1998, Rodrigues Pointe Monnier – 2003, 2011).
It is important to understand the significance of this development in Mauritius for Mitsui just a month prior to the Wakashio’s grounding. This was not the first time a Mitsui subsidiary had used proximity to officials to secure privileged information in a bid-rigging corruption scandal.
Following allegations that Mitsui had paid $3 million (300 million Yen) to Telekom Malaysia as an inducement to award a major contract, Transparency International called for Mitsui to be blacklisted if complicity were to have been found.
Tunku Abdul Aziz, President of Transparency International’s Malaysian Chapter, the Kuala Lumpur Society for Transparency and Integrity, said at the time, “It is clearly my duty to urge the government to apply the full weight of the law against the guilty. In this case, we need to look at both the giver and the taker because, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango. Again, if complicity is proven, Mitsui should be blacklisted and barred from participating in all future contracts. This will send a clear signal to all international bidders that Malaysia is totally against bribery in all its business transactions.”
Mitsui Chairman and President resign (2002)
In 2002, a major set of scandals rocked Mitsui & Co. The Chairman, Shigeji Ueshima (71) and President, Shinjiro Shimizu, (64) resigned on 30 September 2002, taking responsibility for successive Power Plant procurement scandals that had impacted the company.
Japanese Media at the time reported that “It was alleged in late August  that Mitsui employees had bribed a senior Mongolian government official to secure orders for a power project financed by official development assistance from Tokyo.”
Transparency International’s 2004 Global Corruption Report, reported the amount of the bribe was $11,000 and took place early in the procurement process.
Reports from Japan at the time show strong similarities between the bid rigging findings in Mauritius and what occurred in Mongolia in 2002. The Japan Times reported that “According to the sources, Mitsui employees are suspected of paying the Mongolian official on several occasions during his visit to Japan last summer, before bidding for the second-stage construction of the project. In return, the employees are believed to have received information relating to the construction work, such as exchanges of notes between the Japanese and Mongolian governments, the sources said.”
The project was to build 150 power generation facilities in 73 Mongolian villages. The entire project was financed by Japan’s Development Aid budget, for a total of $15 million (1.61 billion Yen). Mitsui had won both phases of the contract.
Kunashiri Island, Japan/Russia (2002)
The Japan Times went on to report, “The Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office is reportedly preparing to investigate Mitsui’s role in the episode, suspecting violations of legislation banning the bribing of foreign government officials. Earlier this year , three Mitsui employees were charged with interfering in the bidding process for a government-funded power generation project on Kunashiri Island with the help of a Foreign Ministry official. Kunashiri Island is a Russian-held territory claimed by Japan.”
The London’s Evening Standard further reported about the Kunashiri Island project that, “The Tokyo District Prosecutor’s Office alleged that details of the Foreign Ministry secret budget for the plan were leaked to the Mitsui employees, enabling the company to outbid two rivals for the contract worth two billion yen” ($20 million). The Evening Standard did go on to report that, “Mitsui directors claimed that an internal investigation had found no sign of wrongdoing.”
In 2009, a $250 million Power Plant called Delimara Power Station was awarded to the Mitsui E&S owned subsidiary, BWSC. This had followed a four year tender process.
However, soon after the award, the then head of the opposition, Joseph Muscat (who later became Prime Minister for almost a decade) claimed there was undue influence in the bidding process. He specifically highlighted the role of an intermediary consultant to collect information on the bid to help BWSC secure the most competitive bid allegedly in return for $5 million payment (EUR 4 million).
Muscat met with Malta’s Auditor General, Anthony Mifsud, in 2009 and presented him with newspaper clippings from an investigative report conducted by Danish Newspaper Borsen.dk in 2003. These newspaper reports allegedly revealed a pattern in several countries where BWSC had employed a similar approach to win Power Station bids.
On 1 December 2009, the Malta Independent reported BWSC representative Soren Barkholt saying that the Opposition Leader’s press cuttings from the Danish newspaper Borsen were more than six years old, and that the matters in question were now stone dead. The newspaper reported him saying “The bribery allegations were not only false and ridiculous but, stated Mr Barkholt, ‘completely blown out of proportion’.”
Ten years later, with the revelations at the St Louis Power Plant in Mauritius and the ban by the African Development Bank as well as all multilateral funders, serious questions are being asked about those statements.
Malta’s Auditor General subsequently produced a 40-page report into the BWSC bidding process that did not find any wrong doing. The Danish Foreign Minister at the time, Lene Espersen, was also reportedly looking into the findings of the Auditor General report. The Prime Minister at the time lost the next election, and Joseph Muscat was elected Prime Minister in 2013.
Since this time, the Delimara Power Plant has been the center of political intrigue in Malta. A second corruption scandal has now surrounded the plant, another review by Malta’s National Audit Office, disinformation campaigns, allegations of the use of Panama tax havens revealed by the Panama Papers and a feeling of a collapse in the rule of law have affected Malta in the last five years. The 2017 car bomb murder of journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia shocked the nation and led to widespread street protests, eventually forcing Muscat to resign in January 2020. In August 2020, a court in Malta heard that Galizia was about to break a series of new stories surrounding the Delimara Power Plant, and that could have led to her murder.
The BWSC bids in Sri Lanka, Bahamas, Philippines, China
The countries mentioned in the 2003 Borsen investigative reports were:
- Sri Lanka: BWSC and Mitsui E&S collaborated on a floating power barge in 1999
- Bahamas: BWSC and Mitsui E&S collaborated on heavy fuel oil power plant projects in 1990 and 2005
- Philippines: According to BWSC’s website, BWSC and Mitsui collaborated on two floating power barge projects for the island of Mindanao in 1992. The Times of Malta noted that “Dr Muscat said the [2003 article in the Borsen] newspaper reported that, in 1999, a director of BWSC… had approved a $90,000 bribe to a public officer in the Philippines in connection with a project in Subic Bay. Dr Muscat said there were at least two employees who uncovered this corruption and who were then sacked.”
- China: The Times of Malta reported that “In China, Dr Muscat said, Mitsui tried bribing a deputy minister offering him €33,000 with the aim of getting information on the cheapest bid submitted for a power station. Over this case, a Mitsui officer was jailed for two years.”
According the BWSC’s website, there was close collaboration with Mitsui E&S for heavy fuel oil power plant projects in Macau (1985, 1989, 1993), Mauritius (1995, 2014), Malaysia (1998), Guam (1997), Crete (2002), Cyprus (2007), and two biogas plants in Japan. These projects were not mentioned in the Borsen.dk investigative reports.
BWSC also faced accusations of undermining worker conditions in the U.K. on its waste-to-energy power plants being built in 2019, as well as several other power plants it won contracts for in the United Kingdom.
Other revelations by Denmark’s Borsen newspaper
The Malta media covered then leader of the opposition, Joseph Muscat’s, press interview that raised more questions from the Borsen newspaper investigation.
In reports from the Times of Malta at the time, Joseph Muscat said that, “according to the newspaper, mother company Mitsui was also implicated in a series of scandals in Russia, Malaysia, Korea, Jordan and Qatar, paying an estimated €700 million in bribes up to 1998.”
Although this received significant coverage in the Malta media in 2009 and 2010, there had been no evidence shown of these bribes and there has been no other references to these offences by groups like Transparency International that ranks Japan 20th out of 180 nations in its Corruption Perceptions Index.
The revelation that these incidents were not isolated cases from the Delimara Power Plant became an important factor in Malta, prompting the National Audit Office of Malta to seek formal clarification about the complex business relationships with the various Mitsui subsidiaries.
Other incidents of corporate misconduct
- Brazil: Mitsui was one of 11 companies fined $140 million by Brazilian authorities in 2019, for illegally colluding on tenders for building metro lines and suburban trains. Brazil’s Administrative Council for Economic Defense said that the companies belonged to a cartel that distorted at least 26 tenders between 1999 and 2013 in four Brazilian states. Mitsui’s business partner in Brazil, Petrobras, was caught in a further bribery scandal for an oil drilling ship that both companies had leased (the Petrobras 10000). This complex bribery case eventually led to a $75 million settlement by South Korea’s Samsung Heavy Industries with the U.S. Department of Justice following charges under the U.S. Foreign and Corrupt Practices Act. Mitsui was not investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice in this case.
- Banking Controls: Another of Mitsui’s Keiretsu is the Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, one of the world’s biggest financial groups. It has faced repeated calls from U.S. banking regulators to tighten up its anti-money laundering protocols. The U.S. Federal Reserve ordered Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group to upgrade its Anti-Money Laundering controls in January 2007. Although it lifted this order in 2010, it had to issue a formal written warning to the banking group last year for SMBC to make immediate changes. In 2013, the financial group disclosed that it had approved an unspecified number of loans to individuals linked to an organized crime group through its credit company Cedyna Financial Corp.
With the strong influence of many public and private entities linked to the Mitsui Keiretsu now involved in Mauritius and the Wakashio response, there are calls for an independent, international investigation into what transpired in Mauritius.
Mitsui is also one of the main beneficiaries of Japan’s militarization. U.S. global leadership under President Trump had allowed the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world who have pushed greater military spending. With the new Biden-Harris Presidency, there is an important window to rebuild strong international institutions to prevent the large military-industrial complex from pushing the world to the brink of war, with large, opaque deals, and ultimately avoiding the real work that needs to get done to address the climate crisis – including fixing the broken global shipping industry and its impact on the ocean.
5. Fishy diplomacy: Mauritius as a base for Japan’s fishing fleets
Japan’s powerful tuna interests have had their eye on Mauritius and the Indian Ocean for a while. In 1989, Japanese giant Mitsubishi purchased Liverpool-based Princes Group. In that time, Mitsubishi rapidly expanded their understanding of tuna fisheries in the Indian Ocean. They established a presence in Mauritius and rapidly became one of the biggest local tuna processing companies, establishing a large presence in the capital city, Port Louis. In 2014, they merged with Mauritius’ second biggest tuna processing company to form a tuna giant employing 10,000 workers and generating $400 million sales every year.
However, until 2018, Japan did not have significant fishing rights in Mauritius. A controversial deal in August 2018 (which was subject to protests in Mauritius), opened up Mauritian waters to Japan.
New satellite analysis by global satellite analytics firm, Windward, reveal for the first time exclusively for Forbes, the extent to which industrial fishing has increased since the 2018 Japan-Mauritius fishing deal.
The chart below shows Japan’s fleet in Mauritius since 2016. The numbers track the number of industrial fishing operations launched each quarter from Mauritius by the Japanese fleet. As tuna fishing is a seasonal activity, there are spikes expected at different times of the year. What is clear is the large increase in Japan’s presence in Mauritian waters.
Within a few months of the deal being signed, there was a 1000% jump in the number of Japanese fishing operations launched from Mauritius. Japanese flagged vessels now account for the vast majority of large-scale industrial fishing operations launched from Mauritius.
Rapid rise of Japan fishing activity in Mauritian waters
Prior to the Wakashio grounding Japan was already facing a backlash in Mauritius from what appeared to be a series of secretive deals for tuna access rights and maritime security assistance, with questions also being raised about the $12m that Japan had granted Mauritius for the purchasing of radars (given that most of Mauritius’ radars had appeared to be down on the day of the crash).
A controversial 2018 fisheries and maritime security deal between Japan and Mauritius, and signed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Masahisa Sato, with the then Minister for Foreign Affairs of Mauritius, Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo, proved very unpopular with protests by Mauritian fishermen who had complained about the unsustainable tuna fishing methods of the Japanese fleets in Mauritian waters, and questioned Japan on its sustainability practices and policies on whaling. The Mauritian fishermen were equally critical of a deal with the EU in 2017 that allowed large Spanish fleets to enter Mauritian waters for tuna fishing with relatively weak monitoring.
Under the Jugnauth Government, the deal for India to run Mauritius’ Coastguard and Japan to provide Maritime security services, fishing operations significantly expanded in Mauritius in the past two years. This has been sharply criticized by many NGOs and neighboring countries who have argued that the Indian Ocean is being fished beyond its sustainability limits.
The chart below shows the number of industrial fishing operations in Mauritius. Most industrial fishing operations started to significantly increase after 2017.
As Western countries and companies have cut back on their fishing operations in the Indian Ocean to help tuna stocks recover, Japan has expanded its fleet and fishing operations.
Analysis of the Japanese fishing fleet in Mauritius
There are seven main vessels operating from Mauritian capital, Port Louis. Five appear to be sophisticated tuna fishing vessels. One appears to be a research vessel. A seventh is a controversial factory trawler that has a history of being caught conducting illegal fishing operations around the world, and whose operations in Mauritius cannot be detected.
A look through the seven vessels using Mauritius for fishing operations reveals that each vessel is over 50 meters long (one sixth the size of the giant Wakashio bulk carrier, that carried over 200,000 tons of iron ore), and equipped with sophisticated gear.
This means that these vessels can be in the ocean for months on end, withstanding extreme weather conditions, whilst catching industrial amounts of tuna.
These industrial vessels are far larger than the 3-5 meter long wooden boats that the subsidence coastal lagoon fishermen are used to.
The Japanese fleet in Mauritius appears to be small – around seven unique vessels at a time. However, they appear to be able to catch large volumes of fish. They operate in clusters and in defined areas.
The entire fleet operates from Port Louis, which indicates that their operations should be known and regulated by Mauritian authorities.
At different times of the year, the entire Nazareth Bank – one of the most famous deep water coral sites at 200 meters depth and a hotbed for marine biodiversity – attracts significant fishing efforts. The former underwater continent experiences an upwelling of nutrients from across the Indian Ocean and is an important nursing and feeding ground for large ocean creatures such as whales, dolphins, sharks and rays.
Japan using Mauritius as a base for its regional ambitions
The Japanese fleet does not just operate within Mauritian waters.
A further analysis reveals that they have been using Mauritius as a base for regional fishing expeditions and around the entire coast of Africa. It shows the scale and extent of the Japanese fishing fleet operations across Africa and the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, from Mauritius.
There is a significant amount of activity by Japanese vessels operating from Mauritius around Madagascar and off the coast of Mozambique. Similarly, there is a lot of activity around the Maldives and the edges of the Southern Ocean, from fishing operations launched from Mauritius. Japanese fleet activity can be seen extending all the way across to West Africa and around Seychelles.
With Japan providing maritime security infrastructure to all of these nations, and the strong Japan-India axis that is being built over the Indian Ocean, how robust will the surveillance be of Japanese fishing operations in the Indian Ocean?
Japan opted out of international whaling convention
When looking at the pattern of fishing, it is important to bear in mind that in 2019 Japan opted out of the international whaling agreement, and has publicly declared its intention to begin commercial whaling.
The waters around Mauritius contain some of the Southern Ocean’s most important whale nursing grounds.
Mauritians have already been distressed by the sight of over 50 dead whales and dolphins washed up on the island’s shores following the Wakashio oil spill.
Japan’s mystery factory ship: the Tomi Maru No 58
One particular vessel, a factory ship known as Tomi Maru No 58 has attracted particular attention due to its size and particularly secretive fishing patterns.
All six of the other Japanese fishing vessels based in Mauritius could be tracked, aside from the Tomi Maru No 58, the largest vessel in the fleet, which kept its transponder silent.
The Tomi Maru was also impounded by Russia in 2007 where illegal fishing was identified. This case was taken to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.
Given the mystery surrounding the Japanese factory ship, the Tomi Mari No 58, the Japanese Embassy in Mauritius has been approached for details of the Tomi Maru No 58’s fishing operations, as a Japanese flagged vessel under the regulatory supervision of the Japanese state. The Japanese Embassy did not respond to requests from Forbes since October 16.
6. Japan’s climate geopolitics
Mauritius has a strong connection with the ocean. Its people rely on a healthy marine environment for tourism, biodiversity and small scale, artisanal fishing.
As a small island state, it has also been at the mercy of the climate crisis, with warmer and more acidic oceans impacting the growth of coral reefs in its tropical waters.
Japan misread the values of Mauritius and the Mauritian people in how it approached the Wakashio oil spill.
Japan’s relationship with the ocean could not have been more diametrically opposed.
Climate geopolitics: Under Prime Minister Abe, Japan had allied itself with Trump’s U.S., Modi’s India and Morrison’s Australia. All four nations had pursued pro-fossil fuel policies. This placed them at odds with small island states, the EU, U.K. and China, all of whom had been outwardly pursuing more climate friendly policies to meet Paris Climate objectives. Although Japan may have been seeking votes at the UN for a UN Security Council Seat, for most island nations, the climate crisis presents a bigger long term threat than the political and military machinations of large industrial nations.
Denial of science: Japan’s new Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, swiftly got caught up in a scandal in Japan over political interference in academic freedom. He had specifically intervened to prevent six academics being nominated to Japan’s independent science council, who had opposed the militarization of Japan. This interference has put Suga in conflict with some of Japan’s leading Nobel Prize Winners. The lack of robust science being used in response to the oil spill in Mauritius is a fallout over how environmental, ocean and climate science were dismissed under Abe and now Suga.
Mitsui’s fossil fuel strategy: One of Japan’s most influential companies, Mitsui, continues to make large investments in fossil fuels around the world. Through its network of companies, these fossil fuels are then pushed through into long-term shipping and power station infrastructure around the world, undermining many small island states calling for stronger corporate responsibility against the climate crisis.
Japan’s ship oil controversy: Japan holds significant control over the IMO and has been pushing solutions that increase greenhouse gas emissions from shipping. The Wakashio oil spill reveals that this presents a danger not just in terms of climate change but the heightened risks presented by larger ships that were approved by the IMO.
Japan’s tuna and whaling policies: Although Abe was a member of a Head of State commission claiming to represent sustainable ocean economy, Japan decided to start commercial whaling in 2019 and has been expanding their tuna fishing fleet across the Indian Ocean just as many countries are trying to give tuna stocks the ability to recover.
The values of the Japanese Government and Japan’s large military-industrial complex is fundamentally the wrong fit for small island nation like Mauritius. The way Japan has conducted its business, international aid and science in response to the Wakashio oil spill has revealed a lack of understanding and respect for the needs and wishes of small island populations.
Japan was on the wrong side of history once before. On climate and ecology, will it be again?
Japan’s expensive lessons from the Wakashio oil spill
The Wakashio started off as a large shipwreck. But it is a symbol of a series of systematic failures.
- Had Japan not pushed for larger vessels, the continuation of heavy fuel oil, offshore Flags of Convenience and lower inspection standards, perhaps the Wakashio would never have ended up on Mauritius’ reefs in the first place.
- Had the Japanese insurance firms listened to local maritime experts in Mauritius, rather than flying in their own consultants, they would have realized much sooner the risk the Wakashio presented to the island while the boat stayed on Mauritius’ reefs for 12 days.
- Had they not decided to unilaterally sink the front bow of the Wakashio, which contained the large oil tanks of a Capesize Bulk Carrier, they may have avoided the over 50 deaths of whales and dolphins along Mauritius’ coast.
- Had they invited local and international scientists with a strong understanding of oil spills and the local ecology, the lasting damage that is being seen could have been avoided.
- Had they been more transparent about the type of oil that the Wakashio was carrying, there may not have been tens of thousands of Mauritians now complaining about unrecognized skin and respiratory illnesses.
- Had there not been a widespread collusion with large international UN-affiliated groups to try and influence the outcome of the oil spill, Japan’s moral leadership in the world would not be questioned as much as it currently is.
Until now, there has not been a full apology or press conference by the over 100 consultants brought in by the range of large Japanese corporate and Government interests still involved in the clean up of the oil spill. What the protestors in Mauritius have called for are a compassionate response: not just words, but commensurate actions.
The more questions asked about the incident, the more the truth becomes blurred. Large, corporate interests seeking to avoid an expensive insurance payout have placed corporate greed ahead of the the support the island nation had been calling for when they marched in the streets.
The Japanese Government now faces a fundamental choice: either it will stand on the side of history reflected by the values an ethical, transparent and inclusive response to the oil spill, or it stands on the side of those whose interests are centered around the large corporate, military and nationalistic objectives. There is no middle ground.
The visit of Japan’s Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, to the Wakashio wreck on Saturday December 12 will be closely watched to see how much Japan’s stance will shift from what has been a disastrous last four months.
Metaphor for the climate crisis
The Wakashio is a metaphor for the climate crisis. The warnings were seen early on, but the Japanese led-effort did not listen to front line islanders with the knowledge to understand the risks.
By projecting the worst elements of Japan’s jingoistic values onto Mauritius, the catastrophe had become much worse than it needed to be. The legacy of the Wakashio is likely to be felt in the Mauritian coastal environment for decades to come.
However, Japan’s military-industrial complex that has pushed for a more international role for Japanese business has demonstrated a stunning failure to understand how the world has moved on from the more extractive years of the twentieth century.
It has alienated not just the islanders in Mauritius, but many of the other island nations as well as those in Africa. These other small island and coastal states are on the front lines of the climate crisis, and do not appear eager to be drawn into the broader global geopolitics of rising tension in Asia. Japan has also forgotten that the time of the strong man ruler in many parts of the world may also be coming to an end, as popular uprisings are occurring once more around the world by populations fed up of corruption, incompetence and disregard for nature.
When the history books are written, it may well show the Wakashio represented the rise and fall of Japan. It is a reflection of Japan fundamental misunderstanding how the world has changed around climate and environmental values, and a newer generation who are demanding more from their leaders – domestically and internationally.
It will take a new form of leadership to succeed in this new world, and it remains unclear whether Japan currently has this.
The Wakashio is a symbol for all that is wrong with the global economy today. Unless Japan radically alters its course on the climate and ecological crisis facing the planet, the Wakashio could also become a metaphor for Japan’s global leadership and aspirations too.
Source: Dryad Global / Forbes