The Japan Coast Guard has sent a powerful vessel to reinforce its fleet of patrol ships near disputed islands in the East China Sea, prompting warnings that the move raises the risk of armed conflict with China.
The deployment of the 3,100-tonne Okinawa is the latest by Japan in a year in which both sides have ratcheted up their maritime presence in the Diaoyu Islands, or Senkakus as they are called in Japan.
The coastguard held a ceremony on Friday to send off the Okinawa, which is equipped with a heavy helicopter, to the Naha coastguard base in Okinawa prefecture, the closest Japanese city to the disputed islands, Japanese public broadcaster NHK and Kyodo news agency reported yesterday.
The Okinawa was formerly named the Chikuzen, when it was stationed at the Fukuoka coastguard base in Kyushu.
It once fired its machine gun on two North Korean vessels in the Sea of Japan, known as the East Sea in South Korea, in 1999 - the first time an armed Japanese vessel had fired on foreign ships in 46 years.
"China is also increasing its activities in waters near the Diaoyus, with many powerful ships of up to 4,000 tonnes, so such competition between Beijing and Tokyo only increases the risk of conflict," Shanghai-based military analyst Ni Lexiong said.
Beijing-based naval analyst Li Jie said that the Okinawa's deployment might be "part of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's attempt to set up a national defence force by revising the country's pacifist constitution, and other political ambitions".
"The deployment of the Okinawa to the Diaoyus is obviously targeting China, which will only raise tensions in the East China Sea," Li said.
"For China, its goal of sending more patrol ships to Diaoyu waters is very simple - forcing Japan to recognise that it is a disputed area."
The Okinawa was scheduled to sail out of Naha yesterday to patrol around the islands, NHK reported.