China is intensifying its efforts to block Japan and U.S.-led efforts to monitor North Korea’s illegal ship-to-ship cargo transfers in the East China Sea, the Sankei Shimbun learned from several government sources on Dec. 19. Every Japan Self-Defense Forces and U.S. vessel in the area has reportedly been followed closely by a Chinese Navy vessel assigned to it. China has deployed additional ships to the area as well, with the result that occasionally there are more than 10 Chinese Navy vessels in the East China Sea. The increased number of vessels suggests the China has beefed up its Navy.
For example, in surveillance activities involving a total of five vessels—two Japanese, two American, and one from either Australia or the UK—each vessel is followed by a Chinese military ship that keeps a certain distance behind. These days, the Chinese ships immediately begin following any vessel that enters the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, which China unilaterally declared in November 2013.
The UN Security Council expert panel monitoring the observance of sanction resolutions against North Korea reported in March this year that there have been ship-to-ship transfers involving Chinese barges and that North Korean coal has been transported to a Chinese port. It is likely that China’s move to increase its ships is a precaution against contingencies involving Chinese vessels as well as a measure to prevent the formation of a network led by Japan and the U.S. to contain China.
China has deployed two military vessels in the vicinity of the Senkakus (Ishigaki, Okinawa) as a precaution against contingencies. In addition, other ships are sent to tail U.S. vessels in the area. Adding in other Chinese ships navigating the East China Sea as part of training exercises, and there are sometimes over 10 Chinese Navy vessels in the area. The U.S. Department of Defense has analyzed this to signify that the Chinese Navy now possesses approximately 350 vessels, among the largest number of any nation in the world.
South Korea, Australia, the UK, France, Canada, and New Zealand also participate in the surveillance of North Korea’s ship-to-ship transfers. The U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge has a Enforcement Coordination Cell (ECC), where information collected by the participating countries’ ships, patrol aircraft, and satellites is shared for the execution of the surveillance activities.