The Yomiuri Shimbun
The government is increasing its vigilance against Chinese government vessels entering Japan’s territorial waters, believing that China may have been intentionally repeating such acts.
Two China Coast Guard vessels entered Japanese territorial waters off Aomori Prefecture on Monday, the second regional headquarters of the Japan Coast Guard announced. On Saturday, the same two vessels were seen sailing in territorial waters off northern Kyushu. In response, the Japanese government has made repeated “expressions of concern” to determine China’s intentions. On July 2, a Chinese naval intelligence vessel entered territorial waters in the Tsugaru Strait.
Right of innocent passage
The JCG’s second regional headquarters, based in Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture, said its patrol ship spotted the two Chinese vessels having entered territorial waters off Cape Henashi in western Aomori Prefecture on Monday morning.
Both vessels then left territorial waters, but reentered them off Cape Tappi in the Tsugaru Strait. They left territorial waters that afternoon. This is the first time China Coast Guard vessels have been confirmed in territorial waters off Aomori Prefecture.
At a press conference Tuesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, “We received advance notice from the Chinese side that the two vessels would pass through Tsushima Strait and Tsugaru Strait heading to the Pacific Ocean.” A Foreign Ministry official said the ministry had expressed concern over the matter to the Chinese side.
The Japanese government is not expected to issue a protest at this time. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea recognizes the “right of innocent passage,” which allows boats to pass freely through other countries’ territorial waters as long as they do not threaten security. This right can also apply to the Chinese government vessels. “We have not received information that [the vessels] acted in any way that would mean they would not deserve the right of innocent passage,” Suga said.
A Japanese government source said the advance explanation from the Chinese side said the vessels “were going to participate in fishing patrols being conducted with other nations in the North Pacific,” but made no mention of entering territorial waters.
On July 8, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hamburg, Germany, and expressed a desire to improve Japan-China relations. A senior Foreign Ministry official worried that the repeated incursions into territorial waters “could throw cold water on any warming of relations.”
China is increasing its military activities in nearby sea regions, such as the naval and air exercises carried out in January in the Sea of Japan. Chinese fishing boats are said to be increasingly active in the Sea of Japan, so Chinese government vessels could use the protection of fishermen as a pretext to increase the frequency at which they appear in neighboring sea regions.
Masafumi Iida, a senior fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies who is an expert in China’s security policies, said that the recent incursions may be a form of “retaliation” for the U.S. military’s recent “freedom of navigation” strategy, in which U.S. warships enter the “territorial waters” around islands China has established effective control over in the South China Sea. The Japanese government supported the U.S. strategy, so the incursions into Japan’s territorial waters may be an expression of discontent.
There has been an upswing of activity in China aimed at emphasizing Xi’s authority, with the launch of his second term coming up in autumn, so the incursions into territorial waters by government and other vessels may be a part of this, analysts said.
The China Coast Guard was launched in 2013, soon after the start of the Xi administration, by combining various marine security agencies, such as the State Oceanic Administration and the Agriculture Ministry’s fishing bureau. Patrols by large numbers of government boats around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture have become a regular occurrence, which is seen as “one of the administration’s biggest successes” in its relations with Japan, according to a Chinese Communist Party source.
A source with ties to the Chinese government said the Xi administration could be planning “new successes” by expanding and normalizing patrol activities in regions outside the area around the Senkaku Islands, such as in the Sea of Japan, and possibly by increasing pressure on Japan.