TOKYO – Japan has confirmed an interpretation of an existing law allowing its coast guard to directly fire a weapon against a foreign vessel it believes is aiming to land people on the Senkaku Islands, a change government officials and experts believe will boost Tokyo’s deterrence against Beijing’s perceived attempts to seize the Japanese-controlled islets in the East China Sea.
After Beijing implemented a law on Feb. 1 allowing its coast guard to use weapons against foreign ships that China sees as illegally entering its waters, ruling Liberal Democratic Party members have been seeking a counterstrategy to deter such activities.
There was growing concern among LDP members that China’s new law was targeted at the Japan-controlled, China-claimed Senkaku Islands, an LDP member said.
On Tuesday, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and their U.S. counterparts held security talks in Tokyo and expressed “serious concerns” regarding China’s new coast guard law.
They also reaffirmed that the Senkakus fall under the scope of a security treaty between the two countries meaning Washington would defend Tokyo’s interests in the event of an armed attack against the uninhabited islets.
Prior to the talks, the Japanese government confirmed the interpretation of the existing law with LDP members on Feb. 25.
The government said the law would apply power under police law and that the Japan Coast Guard could fire on official vessels close to the Senkaku Islands if it is believed they are about to commit a violent act.
“This interpretation will not let others find weakness in Japan’s law and will work as a deterrent,” former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said.
Some LDP lawmakers were urging the Japanese government to find a way to protect the islands in so-called gray-zone situations, which fall short of a military attack.
Taku Otsuka, an LDP member and executive of a joint group on national defense, negotiated with the government to come up with the legal interpretation, according to Onodera, who heads the group.
“The interpretation is very significant because even if the situation escalates, it has become clear that it is possible to respond to the situation to the extent that it does not lead to an armed attack,” Otsuka said.
China has urged Japan in response not to take “dangerous actions that may complicate” the situation around the Senkaku islets, and it has said it will continue to patrol the waters near the islands. China’s new coast guard law also authorizes its coast guard to seize foreign ships entering waters claimed by Beijing.
Regarding Japan’s interpretation of the law, experts say that it will raise Japan’s deterrence against China.
“It is important to show adversaries that there will be no gap in Japan’s response for deterrence,” said Ken Jimbo, an expert of international security at Keio University. The critical point is to eliminate the interpretation that “there is a legal gap and that Japan cannot do anything about it,” he said.
Citing the 12 Japan Coast Guard vessels that are dedicated to the Senkaku Islands, Jimbo warns, if the Chinese coast guard deploys a large number of ships around the Senkakus, “Japan needs to be vigilant about a scenario in which the Japan Coast Guard is overwhelmed by numbers.”
The Japan Coast Guard estimates the Chinese coast guard has 130 vessels of 1,000 tons or more as of December 2019, while Japan has 66 as of March 2020.
Last year, Chinese coast guard vessels entered Japanese territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands about two times a month on average. Since the law took effect in China last month, that has risen to six times a month, according to the Japan Coast Guard.
“The real deterrence impact here is the public nature of this interpretation which is meant to signal to Beijing that the Japan Coast Guard will not stand down or be coerced around the Senkakus,” said Jonathan Berkshire Miller, an expert of international security and a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.
Currently, the primary responsibility for the security of the area rests with the Japan Coast Guard and the police. If the situation gets out of their control, the Cabinet can order the SDF to start maritime patrols or mobilize the security forces.
Japan’s interpretation of the laws to use police force will also apply to the Self-Defense Forces if the Cabinet announces the start of maritime patrols, according to Kishi.
However, there is still dissatisfaction with the interpretation of the law among some conservative LDP members.
They are urging the government to enact a new law that would make it easier for the Maritime Self-Defense Force to support the coast guard’s security activities in noncombat situations.
However, Jimbo says, “Strengthening the SDF role would be an escalation that would give China an excuse for a military response.”
“Japan should decide the issue (for a new legal enactment) in the context of how the country develops a deterrent system for gray-zone situations,” he said.
The two experts recommend an evolving operational framework for cooperation between the Japan Coast Guard and the MSDF to counter adversaries. “Japan also will need to work these elements side by side with its key U.S. ally,” Miller adds.
Jimbo believes that the Japan Coast Guard should strengthen its maritime capability and its legal foundation.
“In terms of maritime capability, Japan needs to increase the number of its ships, equipment and operations. In terms of legal infrastructure, Japan needs to amend the Japan Coast Guard law and relax the requirements for the use of weapons that fall under the police act,” Jimbo said.
Nonetheless, China’s adventurism is likely to propel security ties between Japan and other countries that share the same values.
“Japan should work to make foreign allies and partners, including the U.S., Australia, India, Canada and countries in Europe, understand the current situation around the Senkaku and Beijing’s destabilizing moves,” Miller said.