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Politics

China coast guard law reignites Japan push for Senkaku security

Lawmakers urge cutting red tape for SDF to help handle Beijing's empowered force

A Chinese maritime surveillance ship sails close to a Japanese fishing boat near one of the Senkaku Islands.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- With a law granting broad powers to China's quasi-military coast guard set to take effect Monday, Japanese lawmakers have stepped up calls for Tokyo to craft legislation to beef up its defense of the Senkaku Islands.

The Chinese law explicitly gives the coast guard the right to forcibly remove vessels, and to use weapons in certain situations, in waters under its "jurisdiction." That is believed to include the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims and calls Diaoyu.

Japanese lawmakers expressed concern about the measure Tuesday in a meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's National Defense Division, with one calling it "blatantly threatening." It was argued that a clause in the legislation letting Beijing forcibly demolish unapproved structures in waters and islands it claims is "aimed directly at the Senkakus."

The law threatens to escalate tensions in the region that have already been running higher amid increasingly frequent Chinese incursions around the islands.

"Japan's exclusive economic zone in the East China Sea is being Hong Kong-ified," said Chisako Masuo, an associate professor at Kyushu University.

Chinese government ships sailed in the contiguous zone around the Senkakus on a record 333 days last year, with multiple incidents involving pursuit of Japanese fishing vessels in the islands' territorial waters. The Chinese coast guard reportedly has two 10,000-ton-plus patrol ships, the largest of any coast guard in the world.

"China is coming to take the Senkakus," a senior Self-Defense Forces official said. "The government should face reality and act quickly to strengthen our [security] structure."

While Tokyo plans to expand its own coast guard patrols in the area, some lawmakers are calling for stronger action.

"We may need something like the Territorial Security Act that the opposition submitted in the past," said Masahisa Sato, head of the LDP's Foreign Affairs Division and a former Ground Self-Defense Force official.

Responsibility for security in the area now lies primarily with the coast guard and police. If a situation arises that they cannot handle, the SDF may be dispatched with cabinet approval. Though this approval can be granted by telephone in an emergency, it still takes time to get confirmation from the entire cabinet.

The Territorial Security Act, co-sponsored by the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan and Japan Innovation Party, would have allowed for SDF deployment in certain designated areas without the need for a cabinet decision. It would have also expanded the SDF's duties, letting the Maritime Self-Defense Force more easily support coast guard policing actions in peacetime.

This came after a 2014 call by then-LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, among others, for legislation on territorial security.

The government, however, has been slow to take action on this issue.

Maritime security legislation is not high on the agenda for the Suga administration, which has made dealing with the coronavirus outbreak its top priority. The draft of China's coast guard law was released back in November, yet Tokyo has yet to lodge a protest or call for international pushback against the measure.

"We will continue to watch developments regarding China's coast guard with great interest," Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters Wednesday, using much the same language as when he was asked about the topic in November.

"The Japanese government should accept the reality that China has begun undermining the international maritime legal order through domestic law, and make a strong protest at an early stage," Masuo said. "It must strengthen concrete diplomatic and security partnerships with countries that have concerns about China's external activities, while considering the possibility of an international legal battle."

Japan and the U.S. have repeatedly confirmed -- most recently in a phone call Wednesday between Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden -- that their bilateral defense treaty applies to the Senkakus.

Article 5 under the treaty is widely interpreted to mean that the U.S. would treat any attack on the Senkaku Islands as equivalent to an attack on American soil. The American military and the SDF have planned joint exercises with scenarios including a Chinese occupation of the islands.

The allies' united front regarding the islands should serve as a deterrent to China. However, although Washington acknowledges that the Senkakus are under Japanese administration, it has not clearly backed Japan's assertion of sovereignty. Some in the U.S. are leery about the prospect of entering an armed conflict with China over the uninhabited islets.

"If China can push Japan out of the [Senkakus'] territorial waters, it can rob Japan of its administrative rights," Masuo said.

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