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International relations

Surge in Chinese incursions leaves Japan scrambling on Senkakus

Tokyo weighs how to legally respond, including direct shots at offending vessels

TOKYO -- The upsurge in Chinese incursions into Japanese waters near the Senkaku Islands has sent Japan searching for a response strategy based on law, including a clear rule on when it can fire on foreign vessels.

Official Chinese vessels entered waters surrounding the Japan-administered Senkakus, claimed by China as the Diaoyu, on six separate days in February -- the most in four and a half years.

China upgraded its coast guard to quasi-military status Feb. 1, allowing it to fire at foreign ships in its waters. Amid concerns that Beijing could further step up activities near the Senkakus, Japanese government officials said at a meeting with ruling party members Thursday that the Japan Coast Guard may be able to directly shoot at foreign targets caught in the act of committing violent crimes on their way to landing on Japanese territory.

Though there are limits to what countries may do within their own territorial waters, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea permits "necessary steps" to prevent the passage of ships that threaten their peace and security.

Japan believes this to include the use of weapons by its coast guard in response to an attack by foreign ships, based on its law permitting authorities to shoot in self-defense, or at a target caught committing a crime with a minimum sentence of three years in prison.

Direct shots fall within the range of actions permitted under Japanese laws regarding its coast guard and police "and are also permissible under international law," said Yoshihiko Yamada, a professor in the Department of Maritime Civilizations at Japan's Tokai University.

"But this won't necessarily discourage the activities of the China Coast Guard," and it can be difficult to identify a violent crime on the spot when no weapons are visible, Yamada said.

"First, the Japan Coast Guard Act needs to be amended to explicitly allow the coast guard to fire shots in warning and directly at vessels that ignore commands to stop, regardless of whether they are government vessels and regardless of whether they are armed," he said. "We need to be able to forcibly stop ships before they land on Japanese territory."

Japan could also bolster coordination between its coast guard and Self-Defense Forces, which are called to action when the coast guard has trouble handling a situation on its own. Coast Guard-style standards may apply to the SDF for firing on foreign vessels, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said Thursday.

"The Coast Guard has limited numbers and equipment, so it will need to work with the SDF," Yamada said. "It is important to create a framework where the Coast Guard and the SDF can tackle different responsibilities and respond flexibly to maritime security issues under the prime minister."

Chisako Masuo, an associate professor at Kyushu University's Graduate School of Social and Cultural Studies, also called for Japan to form a more comprehensive maritime strategy in response to Chinese incursions.

"China has been integrating its military and civilian sectors and is now capable of issuing orders to individual fishing vessels," said Masuo, whose research interests include Sino-Japanese relations. "This means it could instruct a government ship or a fleet of fishing boats to attempt to land on the Senkakus, and Japan needs to go beyond ad hoc responses like firing on an individual vessel."

The Japanese government "needs to seriously consider a scenario where the SDF needs to be deployed to defend the Senkakus," she said.

Still, certain responses by Japan could violate international law. The Japanese government plans to identify specific measures the Coast Guard and the SDF could use in response to maritime incursions under existing domestic and international laws, and when.

"Warning shots near a vessel that repeatedly ignores orders to stop are one thing," said Jun Tsuruta, a Meiji Gakuin University associate professor who specializes in International law, including the law of the sea. "But the use of weapons that could sink that ship is excessive and goes beyond what is accepted under international law."

"Law enforcement at sea is supposed to protect the maritime order," Tsuruta said. "There is a national security component to it, but that is secondary."

"We need to pursue an appropriate response to the maritime incidents around Japan depending on whether we see them as a violation of Japanese law under Japanese jurisdiction or an international issue," he said.

Regardless of the Japanese response, tensions over the Senkakus are not expected to subside anytime soon.

"The patrol and law enforcement activities by Chinese public service vessels in waters of the Diaoyu Islands are legitimate and lawful," China's Ministry of National Defense said Monday. Such activities "within the Chinese territorial waters are legitimate and undisputed, and will continue to be carried out normally," it said.

The next day, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi criticized such acts as violating international law.

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