By Shu Hatakeyama in Beijing and Keisuke Kawazu
On Feb. 6, China Coast Guard vessels entered Japan’s territorial waters near the Senkakus, Okinawa Prefecture, for the first time since the enactment of China’s new law that authorizes the use of weapons by the China Coast Guard. The Japanese government has intensified its surveillance of the area, believing that China aims to chip away at Japan’s effective control of the islands. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has also started to consider countermeasures to the Chinese law. Tensions are rising.
On Feb. 9, the LDP’s National Defense Division and Foreign Affairs Division held a joint meeting to discuss Japan’s response to China’s Coast Guard Law, which went into force on Feb. 1. “The enactment of the Coast Guard Law has changed the character of China’s intrusions into Japan’s territorial waters,” said LDP National Defense Division Director Taku Otsuka.
China has intensified its activities around the Senkakus since the law took effect, triggering a strong reaction from the LDP.
In the early morning of Feb. 6, two Chinese government vessels entered the territorial waters near the Senkakus. The vessels stayed in the waters for approximately eight and a half hours, chasing a Japanese fishing boat from time to time. On Feb. 7 before 4:00 a.m., two Chinese government vessels again entered Japan’s territorial waters and stayed for about five and a half hours, chasing another Japanese boat.
MOFA Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau Director-General Takehiro Funakoshi filed a protest with Minister Counselor Yang Yu of the Chinese Embassy on both occasions. However, during a regular press briefing on Feb. 8, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said that the patrol and law enforcement activities by the China Coast Guard in the waters near the Diaoyu Islands (Chinese name for the Senkakus) are in accordance with law and are legitimate activities conducted for the protection of China’s sovereignty, stressing his country’s intention to establish as a fait accompli the enforcement of the Coast Guard Law near the Senkakus.
China points to Japanese fishing boats operating in the area as the reason for its activities. China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who visited Japan last November, insisted that the Japanese fishing boats were operating inside the sensitive waters.
Before 2019, Chinese ships approached Japanese fishing boats twice a year at the most. The number suddenly increased to eight in 2020. China may use the new law as justification for further intensifying the monitoring of the fishing boats and increasing its activities near the Senkakus.
Although Yang explains that the Coast Guard Law is in accordance with international law and is a practice of other nations, it is not in line with the prevailing interpretation of international law.
International law restricts law enforcement of a coastal nation against ships that belong to a foreign government, even inside the nation’s own territorial waters. China’s Coast Guard Law allows the use of force and law enforcement against foreign government vessels in “waters under jurisdiction” both inside and outside of its territorial waters. Under the Coast Guard Law, temporary maritime warning zones can be established to restrict the ships’ navigation.
Under international law, a vessel can travel through a foreign nation’s territorial waters without prior notice only when its navigation does not affect the nation’s safety and stability: the Chinese government ships that chased Japanese fishing boats inside Japan’s territorial waters are violating this principle.
Japan points out that China’s claim of sovereignty over the Senkakus is in itself a violation of international law. Tensions will rise if China acted as if the waters near the Senkakus were under its jurisdiction. During a press conference on Feb. 9, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi expressed strong concern over the enactment of the Coast Guard Law. Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi also told Chargé d’Affaires ad interim Joseph Young of the U.S. Embassy that he has serious concerns about the Chinese law, calling it “absolutely unacceptable.”
In recent years, the Chinese government is acquiring more vessels that are larger and mounted with more weapons. There is a heightened sense of crisis within the Japanese government that China is intent on undermining Japan’s effective control of the Senkakus.