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Analysis: Why Japan protested Chinese warship’s “legal” entry into contiguous zone

  • July 5, 2016
  • , pp. 83-85
  • Translation

By Hiroyuki Sakurai, president of Gunji Mondai Kenkyukai [Military Affairs Research Institute]


A Chinese warship entered contiguous waters off the Senkaku Islands at 12:50 a.m. on June 9. At around 2:00 a.m., the Chinese Ambassador to Japan was summoned to the Foreign Ministry, where Japan lodged a strong protest, and a National Security Council meeting was also held subsequently.


Unlike the frequent intrusions of Chinese government ships into Japanese territorial waters near the Senkakus, the warship’s passage did not constitute a violation of Japanese sovereignty and is actually legal under international law. Then why did this incident raise such serious alarm when Japan had not protested Russian naval ships entering the same sea area on the previous night?


The Japanese government is probably gravely concerned that after the June 9 incident, China may start sending warships, instead of government ships, to territorial waters off the Senkakus, thus moving up the “escalation ladder.”


While it is often thought that escalation of tension by both parties in a dispute leads to actual conflict, there have also been cases where one party’s acquiescing in the escalation of the other party developed into a conflict, such as the 1982 Falklands War.


It is reckoned that the Japanese government decided to protest to China in order to prevent such a situation, based on its perception that the warship incident was an indication of moving up the “escalation ladder.”


The Japanese government also has very limited means to deal with incidents of this nature. There are actually no legal provisions in Japanese law on how to deal with warships entering its territorial waters. Japan only has a cabinet decision of May 14, 2015 on “dealing with foreign warships’ non-innocent passage through Japanese territorial sea and inland waters” and an accompanying “agreement by the relevant ministries” on the same subject with the same date.


The cabinet decision provides that the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) will deal with such non-innocent passage by invoking Article 82 of the SDF Law to undertake maritime security operations.


Yet, even if the SDF starts such operations, the only steps it can take are “request orders be followed” and “demand withdrawal” because there are no legal provisions on forcible eviction of warships engaged in non-innocent passage, not even in the security laws enacted last year.


While Article 20, Paragraph 2 of the Japan Coast Guard Law (which also applies to the SDF’s maritime security operations) is the legal basis for using weapons to stop ships from undertaking harmful activities, this does not apply to military vessels, which means the only possible measure under the present circumstances is for SDF ships to ram into the offending ships.


Subsequently, on June 15, a Chinese spy ship entered Japanese territorial waters in the Tokara Strait off Kagoshima Prefecture apparently to collect information on Japan-U.S.-India joint exercises taking place in waters east of Okinawa. Monitoring such exercises is not unusual – this was a routine practice of the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Yet, this amounted to China declaring that it regards the present situation to be similar to the Cold War, so the U.S.-China military relationship is expected to move toward confrontation.


The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson asserted on June 17 that the Chinese ship had right of passage because the Tokara Strait is a waterway used for international navigation. It is reckoned that China intends to conduct more military activities in Japanese territorial waters from now on based on this right of passage. (Summary)

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