China’s coast guard law has generated tension and controversy in Japan.
In the small hours of the morning on Feb. 6, two China Coast Guard vessels entered Japan’s territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture for the first time since the enactment of China’s coast guard law. The vessels came within several hundred meters of a Japanese fishing boat and stayed in the area for eight and a half hours in a tense standoff with the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) patrol ships that rushed to the scene. Similar incidents occurred on Feb. 7, Feb. 15, Feb. 16, and Feb. 21.
One of the China Coast Guard vessels that entered Japanese territorial waters on Feb. 16 was equipped with a cannon. Although Japan Coast Guard ships also carry cannons, their use is strictly limited.
“It is true that China is gradually ratcheting up the pressure,” says a senior JCG official. “It is important that we respond in a way that won’t escalate the situation.”
Maritime Self-Defense Force and Chinese Navy vessels were backing up the two countries’ coast guard ships that stayed in position to prevent each other from making a move.
Within the Self-Defense Forces, tension is rising. A teleconference on Feb 17 between senior uniformed officials of Japan and the U.S. was attended by Chief of Staff, Joint Staff Koji Yamazaki and Commander, U.S. Forces Japan, Kevin Schneider. The two spent a lot of time discussing China’s coast guard law.
The Japanese government is trying to strike a balance between keeping China in check and avoiding conflict. Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi clearly stated during a press briefing on Feb. 9 that the activities of the China Coast Guard are in violation of international law even though he had previously only said Chinese government vessels’ intrusions in Japan’s territorial waters were extremely regrettable and unacceptable. Although he avoided criticizing the coast guard law, which is a domestic law of China, he nevertheless issue a stronger warning against China’s activities near the Senkakus.
The Japanese government and the Biden administration have repeatedly confirmed that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which stipulates the U.S. obligation to defend Japan, is applicable to the Senkakus. This kind of diplomatic move has its limits, however.
Inside the Liberal Democratic Party, there has been a resurgence of calls for legislation to address “gray zone situations,” which are not classified as armed strikes against Japan but cannot be resolved by police or the JCG.
In 2015, the government enabled the Cabinet to order response measures such as “maritime patrol activities,” in which the SDF is dispatched for policing activities, via teleconference so that the orders can be issued in a timely manner. During a meeting of the Parliamentary Association for National Defense on Feb. 19 , Chief Secretary Masahisa Sato called members’ attention to the gap in the current law and highlighted the need for shortening the time lag [when the responsibility for defense operations shifts from the JCG to the SDF]. Some conservative members advocate upgrading the capabilities of the JCG to the level of the SDF.
Meanwhile, a source at the Ministry of Defense said, “If the SDF were to respond to the China Coast Guard, it would mean that Japan was the first to dispatch its military, falling right into China’s trap.” A government source also expressed concern, saying dispatching the SDF “could inadvertently lead to a clash.”