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International relations

Chinese ships sail near Senkaku Islands for record 112 days straight

Japan works with US and Europe to urge restraint by Beijing

China Coast Guard vessels are armed with what appears to be 76 mm rapid-fire guns. (Photo from the China Coast Guard's WeChat account)   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- The China Coast Guard has been making repeated incursions into waters around the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, marking a record for the number of consecutive days it has done so.

Chinese vessels sailed through the contiguous zone around the islands on Friday for the 112th straight day, according to the Japan Coast Guard. They have entered the contiguous zone every day since mid-February, surpassing the previous record of 111 consecutive days from April to August of 2020.

China also intruded into Japan's territorial sea four days in April and five days in May. From January to May, China entered the waters on a total of 20 days. This has led to a number of incidents where Chinese ships have approached Japanese fishing vessels. On May 29, four Chinese coast guard vessels came close to three Japanese fishing boats, prompting Japan's coast guard patrol boats to secure their safety.

The islands, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu, are about 170 km northeast of Taiwan.

"This year is a special year for the Xi Jinping-led government since it is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party," said Rumi Aoyama, professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. "It is focusing on sovereignty issues to show strength at home. So it could take aggressive action around the Senkakus to keep Japan in check."

"It will be important for Japan to make efforts to win understanding for its position," she added. "Collaboration with the U.S. and Europe will act as a deterrent. And we also need a mechanism to prevent unexpected developments by setting up a channel [of communication] with China."

The Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.   © Kyodo

Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said these actions by Chinese ships "are unacceptable" at a news briefing on Friday. "We will take all possible measures for vigilant monitoring and intelligence gathering," he said.

Chinese navy warships have also been spotted around the Nansei Islands, a chain stretching southwest from Japan toward Taiwan. On May 31, three ships, including a missile destroyer, passed through the southern coast of Kagoshima Prefecture, entering the Pacific Ocean. In April, the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning sailed between Okinawa's main island and Miyako Island twice.

"The China Coast Guard has more vessels than the Japan Coast Guard," said Masafumi Iida at Japan's National Institute for Defense Studies. "It is possible that it will make a move on the Senkakus."

"In another scenario, China invades an isolated island off Taiwan and the U.S. military becomes involved. Since China views the Senkakus as part of Taiwan, tensions will rise," he added.

"The [Japanese] Self-Defense Forces will need to be deployed to confront [China] Coast Guard vessels that are more heavily armed than before," he said. "Showing that one is prepared to deal with specific situations acts as a deterrent."

China has taken the position since the 1970s that the Senkaku Islands are its territory. When Japan nationalized the islands in 2012, Chinese vessels began entering the territorial sea more frequently. In February, China enacted a new law which gave its coast guard sweeping powers as a quasi-military organization, which has led to more activities around the Senkaku Islands.

Some within the Japanese government believe that China is trying to pressure Japan, which has become more involved in the Taiwan issue.

Back in April, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden stressed "the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait" in their joint statement following their meeting in Washington. It was the first time since 1969 that the island was mentioned in a post-summit document by the leaders of the two nations. Japan also pledged "to bolster its own national defense capabilities to further strengthen the alliance and regional security."

China condemned the two nations for mentioning Taiwan, accusing them of interfering in China's internal affairs.

Some Japanese government officials and ruling party lawmakers are concerned that depending on Japan's actions, China may increase intrusions into the territorial sea around the Senkaku Islands, which could possibly lead to inadvertent escalation between the countries' coast guards.

Japan aims to cooperate with the U.S. and Europe to urge China to exercise restraint. The countries' leaders plan to discuss China's continued intimidation in the East and South China seas during the Group of Seven summit, which will be held in the U.K. starting next week, to highlight a united front to deal with the issue.

Japan plans to deepen security cooperation with European countries like the U.K. and France, in addition to strengthening security ties among the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, which brings together Japan, the U.S., Australia and India.

Japan will also seek out direct dialogue with China. On Thursday, senior foreign ministry officials from Japan and China held a video conference. Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters the next day that, "We will reach out to China and continue to monitor the situation."

In March, defense officials of the two nations held an online meeting to discuss a mechanism to avoid accidental collisions at sea and in the air.

Some Japanese ruling and opposition party lawmakers feel strongly that the coast guard alone cannot restrain the actions of a China Coast Guard that has been enhancing its armament. They believe that Japan should indicate how the Self-Defense Forces will become involved to deter threats from China.

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