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International relations

Chinese ships probe waters around Senkakus for 100th day

Beijing tests limits of US pressure on its maritime expansion, analysts say

The Senkaku Islands lie in the East China Sea about 400 km west of the main island of Okinawa.   © Kyodo

BEIJING/TOKYO -- Chinese government ships sailed into the waters surrounding the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands for the 100th straight day on Wednesday, part of weeks of testing of boundaries in the East China and South China seas.

Many of China's government vessels entering the so-called contiguous zone around the Senkakus, which are claimed as the Diaoyu Islands by China, weigh 3,000 tons or more. Some are equipped with autocannons, posing a significant threat to the Japan Coast Guard in the area.

The current streak is longer than the previous 64-day record from last year and suggests that China, having shaking off the coronavirus, is attempting to solidify its East China Sea claims one step ahead of the U.S.

"China is worried that Japan will strengthen its effective control over the Senkakus while the Japanese-American partnership grows stronger and the U.S. ramps up pressure in the South China Sea," said Bonji Ohara, a senior fellow at the Tokyo-based Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

"That China is showing a measure of restraint toward Japan appears to owe to the fact that Beijing thinks it needs to focus more on the South China Sea than on the Senkakus, with the U.S. shifting to intervene in South China Sea territorial disputes," Ohara said.

Chinese probing is not confined to the Senkakus. A Chinese survey ship began operating in Japan's exclusive economic zone off of the Okinotori islets, the southernmost territory administered by Japan, on July 9, dismissing protests by Tokyo.

China flew military aircraft into Taiwan's air defense identification zone for four straight days in June, and conducted a military drill nearby. It has also installed airstrips and radar systems on man-made islands in the South China Sea despite ongoing disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, and established administrative districts covering the waters in April.

"China is growing more confident in its military power," said Tetsuo Kotani, a professor at Japan's Meikai University. "In a way, it's testing how strongly the Trump administration will respond to maritime issues, and how the coronavirus is impacting the defense capabilities of its neighbors."

"Its moves in the East and South China seas also show that China feels it cannot neglect Taiwan," he added, explaining that international pushback against the crackdown in Hong Kong has only strengthened Beijing's desire for unification with Taiwan.

Back in April., U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused the Chinese Communist Party of "exploiting the world's focus on the COVID-19 crisis by continuing its provocative behavior." The U.S. at the time was grappling with an outbreak on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, a flagship in America's Pacific Fleet.

Since then, the U.S. has waded deeper into the South China Sea disputes. "The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire," Pompeo said in a July 13 statement, calling China's claims in those waters "completely unlawful."

China conducted military drills in the South China Sea just days later.

The American military presence in East Asia has long maintained a balance of power in the region. But China wants its military to be as powerful as U.S. forces by around 2050, and increased its defense budget by 6.6% in 2020. Its economy is recovering from the coronavirus-induced slump, logging real growth of 3.2% in April-June from a year earlier.

The pandemic created a temporary vacuum in U.S. power in the Asia-Pacific region, some say. Now, America seems to be making up for lost time. Japan, the U.S. and Australia have been conducting joint drills in the Philippine Sea and near Guam since Sunday. American forces also trained with the Indian military in the Indian Ocean this week. Though the "Quad" exercises highlighted the allies' cooperation against China's expansionism, critics say they have fallen a step behind.

Chinese vessels' conduct in the waters around the Senkakus has become more aggressive. In early July, Chinese government vessels remained in Japanese territorial waters for more than 30 hours and approached a Japanese fishing ship. When Japan complained, China said Japan should be cracking down on fishing activities in the area.

The China Coast Guard had 130 vessels weighing at least 1,000 tons at the end of last year, almost twice as many as the Japan Coast Guard.

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