(Tokyo Shimbun: November 16, 2015 – p. 3)
By Makoto Handa
The standoff between the Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) and the China Coast Guard (CCG) over the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture continues. CCG vessels repeatedly violate Japan’s territorial waters, three times a month on average. As well, the number of Chinese fishing boats that illegally enter Japan’s territorial waters is increasing. The number of Chinese marine research vessels operating around the Senkaku Islands is also increasing. The JCG will establish forward bases at Ishigaki and Miyako islands in Okinawa Prefecture in preparation for a territorial dispute that is expected to be prolonged. With no diplomatic solution in sight, the confrontation will continue.
The Japanese government nationalized three of the Senkaku islands (Uotsuri-shima, Kita-Kojima, and Minami-Kojima) in September 2012. But China claimed sovereignty over the island group. In the same month, 13 Chinese public vessels violated Japan’s territorial waters. Its vessels have continued to do so ever since.
However, after August 2013, when 24 Chinese vessels entered the area, it has become routine for three CCG vessels to together violate Japanese waters three times a month. Each time, JCG patrol boats respond and the CCG vessels leave the area. This is the pattern to date. A JCG official said: “China’s intention is to send Japan the message that the CCG is patrolling Chinese sovereign waters.”
Rather than CCG vessels, more Chinese fishing boats have been coming to the area. While 11 Chinese fishing boats in total violated Japan’s territorial waters in 2011, the number increased to 208 by September 2014. However, none did so between October and December 2014, when Beijing hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. “Fishermen are civilians,” remarked a JCG official, “but I can’t help but think they are controlled by the Chinese government.”
China’s marine research vessels that survey the seabed are also increasingly arriving in the area without notifying the Japanese government. Nine of these vessels were observed last year, but the number increased to 18 by the end of this October. This means that three types of Chinese vessels–CCG, fishing, and marine research–are operating in the area as if challenging Japan in psychological warfare.
To counter Chinese vessels, the JCG plans to make Ishigaki the forward base for responding to the CCG ships by deploying 12 large-size patrol boats to the island in future. It will also deploy three new jet planes to the Naha Airport for conducting night patrols. As a countermeasure to Chinese fishing boats, the JCG will set up forward bases at both Miyako and Irabu islands by deploying nine new patrol boats with high intelligence capability.
Preparations will continue until FY 2019 at a cost 120 billion yen in total. However, the total funding for the JCG this fiscal year is 187 billion yen. A JCG official said, “The amount is equivalent to the cost of an Aegis ship for the Self-Defense Forces (162.1 billion yen). On account of insufficient funding, the JCG maintains about 129 patrol boats beyond their useful life. That is about 35% of all its patrol boats. The JCG must also respond to Chinese fishing boats illegally fishing for coral in waters near the Ogasawara Islands. This “maritime police force” that protects Japan’s territorial waters is hard pressed.
The Abe administration, eager to expand the SDF’s activities overseas, has increased the defense budget in three consecutive years and enacted security laws, but it seems less interested in Japan’s territorial waters.
While the JCG and the CCG are facing off around the Senkaku Islands, Maritime Self-Defense Force’s destroyers and the Chinese Navy’s warships are on standby in waters outside the area. If the CCG vessels break through the JCG line, the SDF will respond. A response by the SDF may draw the Chinese Navy to the area.
Diplomatic negotiations have gone nowhere. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at last year’s APEC and at the 60th anniversary of the Bangdung Conference held in Indonesia in April this year. Abe met with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang on Oct. 1 in Seoul. Although the two countries agreed to avoid accidental confrontations, they take an uncompromising attitude over the sovereignty on the Senkaku Islands.
In the meantime, at the request of the U.S., the Japanese government has begun deliberating on the deployment of the SDF for conducting patrols and surveillance in the South China Sea where China continues to build islands. Sending the SDF to the South China Sea, outside the framework of Japan’s defense, could give the Chinese Navy a pretext to advance into the East China Sea.