Coastguard on the front line as Japan protests over Chinese incursions in East China Sea

Concerns over conflicts involving maritime law enforcers grow as players in the region expand their coastguard fleets and presence

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2018, 6:04pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2018, 11:22pm

Japan has lodged a formal protest with China over the entry of three Chinese coastguard ships into Japanese territorial waters in the East China Sea.

The protest came after the United States said it would expand its coastguard presence in the Western Pacific to strengthen security ties with smaller nations – a move likely to prompt dismay in Beijing.

Japan’s coastguard said on Tuesday that three Chinese patrol boats temporarily entered Japanese territorial waters near the Senkakus, a group of uninhabited East China Sea islands known as the Diaoyus in China.

Japanese coastguard officials said the three boats stayed in the area for about 90 minutes before moving to the contiguous zone just outside Japanese waters by noon, Kyodo news agency reported.

Kenji Kanasugi, director general of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, lodged a protest with the Chinese embassy in Tokyo, saying intrusions into Japan’s waters were an infringement of sovereignty.

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Concerns over conflicts involving coastguard vessels are growing as players in the region expand their coastguard fleets and presence.

US coastguard commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft was quoted by defence industry news service IHS Janes as saying that it planned to deploy a patrol boat to the Western Pacific in the coming year as a sign of US commitment to the region.

“In the East China Sea we’re looking in 2019 at deploying one of our national security cutters,” Zukunft was quoted as saying.

He said in December 2016 that the US coastguard could be the face of the US military presence in disputed waters without appearing too threatening, adding that the US coastguard could help Vietnam, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries develop maritime law enforcement.

China is one of a number of countries in the region expanding their coastguard fleets. Last year, Chinese coastguard cutter 3901 – the world’s biggest coastguard vessel – carried out its first patrol in the South China Sea.

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Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the US cutter would not just be deployed to the East China Sea but also to Southeast Asia and the South China Sea.

“I believe the US government is seriously considering stepping up its countermeasures – either unilaterally or in conjunction with allies and partners – against China’s maritime ‘grey zone’ challenge,” Koh said, referring to the use of non-military forces to realise military objectives such as island seizures. “The East China Sea is an ideal avenue to build up this capacity.”

He said the US coastguard would be able to encourage other maritime law enforcement agencies to work together to deal with maritime security challenges.