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International relations

Ahead of Xi's visit, Japan troubled by Senkaku incursions

China sends record number of vessels to Japanese-held islands in 2019

The Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea: Chinese government vessels entered the waters immediately surrounding the islands a record 1,021 times this year.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- China sent a record number of ships to areas near the Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands this year, a troubling trend that could raise tensions between the two countries ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping's anticipated state visit next year.

Chinese government vessels entered the waters immediately surrounding the East China Sea islands 1,021 times this year through Tuesday, according to data from the Japan Coast Guard. Of those, 114 encroached on Japan's territorial waters. 

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to raise the issue when he visits China from Dec. 23 to Dec. 25. But while the two countries have revived high-level dialogue, including reciprocal visits by top leaders, national security and other pressing issues remain unresolved. Beijing's active maritime incursions could create a headache for Abe as he prepares to receive Xi at home next year.  

At a meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Thursday, multiple members brought up the need to respond to China's maritime activism. "I would like the government to take the best possible course of action so that we can warmly welcome [President Xi]," one member said. At a press conference after the meeting, LDP General Council chair Shunichi Suzuki also raised concerns about the rising number of Chinese ships.

Chinese vessels have approached the Senkakus -- which China claims and calls the Diaoyu -- frequently since Japan nationalized them in 2012. This year's activity far exceeded the old record of 819 cases in 2013. 

Four more vessels traveled near the islands Wednesday and Thursday, with all of them entering Japanese territory on Wednesday, the Japan Coast Guard reported. One was equipped with what appeared to be a cannon.

Such encroachments are counted when a ship travels into contiguous zones near a land mass, or within 24 nautical miles. Traveling within 12 nautical miles of the shore is considered entering territorial waters. 

A Chinese government vessel sails near the Senkaku Islands. (Photo courtesy of the Japan Coast Guard)

The China Coast Guard has oversight of state-operated ships. In 2018, it was placed under the administration of the paramilitary People's Armed Police Force, which answers to the Central Military Commission. Under military control, Chinese border patrol vessels are increasingly armed.

China also continues to expand its presence in the South China Sea, which serves as a key Japanese sea lane. Large artificial islands have been built with runways and radar equipment.

Beijing has proposed to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations rules that would exclude Japan and the U.S. from resource development in the South China Sea.

There are other pressing issues. China has repeatedly detained Japanese nationals under unclear circumstances. A Japanese man in his 50s was detained in the Chinese city of Changsha in July for an unspecified violation of domestic law, it was reported last month.

Abe will visit China to attend a three-way summit with Xi and South Korean President Moon Jae-in later this month. A one-on-one meeting between Abe and Xi is also in the works.

"I've been directly raising issues of concern with President Xi up to the present," Abe told reporters Monday. "I will assert Japan's position when necessary as I have already done. And I will expect a constructive response from China."

In recent years, senior government officials from both countries have shuttled back and forth frequently. This marks an improvement in bilateral relations that went cold when Abe began his current term in office in 2012.

Beijing has been approaching Tokyo amid trade tensions with the U.S. When Japan hosts Xi, it will mark the first state visit by a Chinese president in 12 years, symbolizing improved bilateral ties.

Xi will meet with newly enthroned Japanese Emperor Naruhito and attend a reception at the Imperial Palace. Honor guard members from Japan's Self-Defense Forces will salute the Chinese president.

A state visit is the most formal welcome given to a diplomatic guest of honor. But many in Japan see such red-carpet treatment as inappropriate in light of the national security issues.

Last month, a group of nationalist LDP lawmakers handed the prime minister's office a written statement opposing state visit functions for Xi.

"The explanation for why it should be a state visit, in which the emperor will appear before [Xi], is inadequate," said Masahisa Sato, a former state minister for foreign affairs.

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