By Naohisa Hanzawa
China has warned Japan that many Chinese fishing boats will enter Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands (Ishigaki City, Okinawa Prefecture), and that Japan “has no right to demand” that the boats cease their activities.
The warning came on August 2, two weeks before the end of the ban on China’s fishing in the area around the Senkakus on August 16. It is feared that Chinese fishing boats and official vessels could enter Japanese territorial waters in droves.
The Japanese government is becoming increasingly concerned about the situation, interpreting the warning as a possible attempt to increase provocations, with the aim of undermining Japan’s control in the area.
Between July 2 and July 5 this year, two China Coast Guard ships spent time in and out of Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus, before finally departing on July 5. The two Chinese vessels also threatened a Japanese fishing boat during that period, which can be interpreted as a warning of things to come.
The two China Coast Guard ships spent about 39 consecutive hours in Japanese territorial waters between July 4 and July 5 — the longest period since the Japanese government purchased the islands in 2012.
Chinese authorities were critical of the situation, saying, “The Japan Coast Guard [in the Senkakus area] couldn’t even stop a Japanese fishing boat,” before adding, “[Japan] has no right to demand that hundreds of Chinese fishing boats stop sailing [in the area surrounding the Senkakus].”
Senior officials of the Japanese government point out the Chinese government’s warning is “a vengeful declaration of intent, and a strategic move designed to justify provocations after the end of the fishing ban.”
When the fishing ban was lifted in 2016, a total of 72 Chinese fishing boats and 28 Chinese government ships entered Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus over a 4-day period.
Since 2018, Chinese authorities have apparently instructed that Chinese fishing boats stay away from the area around the Senkakus.
In 2020, after the March postponement of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Japan — initially scheduled for April — Chinese government ships were continuously seen entering Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands from April 14 onward.
Chinese ships were also seen in the contiguous zone as recently as August 2. Ships from China have been confirmed in the area for 111 consecutive days, which is a record since the formerly privately owned islands of Okinawa Prefecture were purchased as national property by the Japanese government in 2012.
In response to the incursions by official Chinese ships into Japanese territorial waters between May 8 and 10, and their pursuit of Japanese fishing boats, the Chinese government stated that they were “legally pursuing and monitoring” the Japanese fishing boats which were “trespassing in Chinese territorial waters.”
Through emphasizing law enforcement, China is aiming to weaken Japan’s control of the Senkakus, and assert its claim regarding ownership of the territory.
The recent warning about fishing boats arriving in droves has a similar intention.
The ownership of the Senkaku Islands — which the Japanese government says “is not in dispute” — has emerged as a contested issue. In an attempt to put itself on an equal footing with Japan, the Chinese government is encouraging vessels (which it says and fishing workers) — and possibly official ships too — to enter Japanese territorial waters.
This increases the sense of caution among the Coast Guard, Border Guard, and Okinawa Prefectural Police before the fishing ban ends.
There are also fears about new forms of provocation. In July 2019, a Chinese survey ship and another official Chinese naval vessel entered Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.
Following an amendment to China’s laws in June, it became possible for the China Coast Guard and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to operate along the same chain of command. Some believe that the Chinese government has been waiting for an opportunity to test out naval vessels, government ships, and militia ships in the area surrounding the Senkakus.
In addition to the Maritime Self-Defense Force ships that keep an eye on Chinese naval vessels hiding behind other Chinese ships, senior Japanese government officials have increased the flight frequency of MSDF patrol planes and Air Self-Defense Force early-warning aircraft.
“We need to raise our state of alert to a level that China would recognize,” the Japanese government said.