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Opinion: Japan shouldn’t send ambiguous message about China’s Coast Guard Law

  • March 18, 2021
  • , Nikkei
  • JMH Translation

By Rumi Aoyama, professor at Waseda University


(Interviewed by Takuya Mizorogi)


China is developing military-related legislation under its leader, Xi Jinping. The legislation includes the revised National Defense Law, which authorizes [the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)] to fully mobilize military and civilian resources when it is judged that China’s national interest is under threat, and the revised Law on the People’s Armed Police Force, which stipulates that the China Coast Guard will be put under the command of the military in a contingency.


The Coast Guard Law is part of a series of “military buildup” policies. In China, veterans are continuing to protest over the lack of secure livelihoods. The Xi government is desperately seeking to dispel the discontent while taking control of the military.


The Chinese leadership will not likely make concessions to neighboring countries regarding interests in the East and South China Seas as long as China’s maritime expansion involves domestic issues. China will maintain the policy of solidifying the foundation of the government by promoting the integration of the military and civilian sectors.


China refers to almost all of the East and South China Seas as its “jurisdictional waters” and makes claims that clearly run counter to international law. Even fishing boats are placed under the jurisdiction of the CCP, and the boundary between the military and private sectors is blurred, making it difficult for Japan to respond.


The Japanese government has to clarify the legal position of China’s intrusions into Japanese territorial waters as a premise for defending the Senkaku Islands. It must make a political decision on whether to respond [to the intrusions into Japanese territorial waters] within the framework of domestic law, such as conducting maritime patrols, or confront China by framing the issue as a violation of sovereignty and seeing it as an interstate problem. Then Japan must convey its position to China.


It is not the case that the Japan Coast Guard alone can deal with Chinese vessels. It is important for Japan to never send an ambiguous message.


Currently, China does not desire its ties with Japan to deteriorate, although this sounds contradictory in view of the situation near the Senkakus. This is because there is no benefit for China in confronting Japan amid escalating Sino-American tensions. For Japan, this is a good opportunity to stop China’s activities through negotiations.


The problem is that China completely misunderstands Japan’s domestic public opinion. Beijing is of the optimistic view that the worsening sentiment toward China is “just a result of Japan being strong-armed by the U.S., which has adopted a hardline policy against Beijing.”


Rearranging the postponed visit by Xi to Japan as a state guest holds the key to resolving the situation. Japan should try to include measures to prevent China’s provocations in the “fifth political document” defining the Japan-China relationship in a new era. Though it may be difficult to invite the Chinese leader to Japan by the end of this year, doing so at an early date is desirable.


The thing China is most wary of is discussion of the capability to attack enemy bases, which involves the ability to strike an enemy base before it launches a missile. Calls for the possession of the capability to attack enemy bases could grow in Japan if tensions near the Senkakus heighten. Tokyo needs to make Beijing realize that it alone is responsible for the growing anti-China sentiment in Japan.   


China ostensibly criticizes moves by Japan, the U.S., Australia, and India to strengthen solidarity, saying it is an “Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).” But in fact China is optimistic and believes that India will not get deeply involved in the group. Japan’s promotion of security cooperation with the U.S., Australia, and India is not souring the Japan-China relationship at this moment.


An accidental clash near the Senkakus must be avoided. Japanese and Chinese defense authorities need to establish a hot line based on the maritime and air liaison mechanism.


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