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PRC intrusions near Senkakus risk engagement, escalation

Felix Kim

Vessels flagged under the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have made continuous and unlawful intrusions in recent months into the waters around Japan’s Senkaku Islands, provoking objections from Tokyo and eliciting protective measures by the Japan Coast Guard, according to the Japan Ministry of Defense.

The PRC’s increasingly brazen intrusions are raising the risk of confrontation and conflict, with the potential to trigger a response from Japan’s ally, the United States, experts said.

PRC vessels made daily unauthorized entries, from mid-February through early June 2021, into the waters around the Senkakus, the Defense Ministry said, increasing the frequency of the PRC’s aggressive behavior over recent years. (Pictured: A Chinese coast guard vessel sails near the Senkaku Islands in August 2016). China also claims the islands, which Japan has long administered.

“China continues to make unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea against the backdrop of power,” Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters June 4, 2021. “Under the constant activity of naval vessels, the China Coast Guard vessels are repeatedly invading Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands despite Japan’s protests.”

Beijing’s motives for the ongoing encroachment involve both its hunger for resources and territorial ambition, Dr. Timothy Heath, a senior international defense researcher at the Rand Corp., told FORUM.

The PRC is attempting to exert control over the disputed waters for commercial reasons, enabling its fleets to fish and its oil exploration vessels to perform surveys, Heath said. Moreover, many of the vessels have a chain of command relationship with Beijing and function as a maritime militia, he said.

No countries expressed interest in the islands until a 1969 United Nations report  cited the prospect of oil deposits in the vicinity, Nobukatsu Kanehara, a former Japanese assistant chief cabinet secretary and a visiting professor at Doshisha University, wrote in a July 2021 article for the Japan Forward website.

“Strategically, these waters and the islands provide an access point around Taiwan into the broader Pacific Ocean, so it is an important gateway for the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] Navy in particular to pass through and expand their presence, exert their influence in the broader Pacific Ocean,” Heath said.

The Japan Coast Guard is the main protector of the Senkakus, keeping watch on encroaching PRC vessels and providing escorts to Japanese vessels, Kishi said. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s patrol aircraft, meanwhile, “monitor the status” of the PRC vessels, he said.

Beginning June 24, 2021, Japan and the U.S. conducted exercise Orient Shield 21, which included thousands of troops participating in tactical training exercises and bilateral planning across several locations in Japan, the U.S. Defense Department reported.

“It seems like the best thing the U.S. and Japan can do right now is try to match the Chinese presence, which the Japanese have done their best to do,” Heath said.

He expects the number of PRC vessels encroaching around the Senkakus to increase, thereby escalating the likelihood of confrontation.

“The ratio of Chinese to Japanese ships could continue to shift in favor of the Chinese,” Heath said, “so I think one risk over time is that the Chinese might become bolder and feel like, given their numerical advantage, they can start taking risks and becoming more aggressive in their tactics to drive back the Japanese Coast Guard.”

Washington has warned Beijing that hostile actions by its coast guard and maritime militia could be regarded as crossing a threshold of armed attack and therefore trigger U.S. alliance obligations under its mutual defense treaty with Japan.

“For now, at least, Japan is fielding Coast Guard ships and aircraft to match the Chinese if not one for one, at least in the substantial part,” Heath concluded. “That’s been a very effective deterrent for the good of other countries, for Chinese neighbors.”




Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.

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