Chinese coastguard ships were spotted yesterday for the first time near the disputed Diaoyu Islands after a reorganisation of the service to boost Beijing's ability to enforce its maritime claims.
Japan's coastguard said four Chinese craft were seen early in the day just outside Japanese territorial waters around the tiny uninhabited East China Sea islands, called the Senkakus by Japan. Meanwhile, Japan scrambled fighter jets yesterday after a Chinese military aircraft flew for the first time through international airspace near its southern islands out over the Pacific.
Japan's Defence Ministry said a Chinese Y-8 airborne early warning plane flew through airspace between Okinawa prefecture's main island and the smaller Miyako island in southern Japan at around noon and later took the same route back over the East China Sea.
"I believe this indicates China's move toward further maritime expansion," said Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera. Beijing officials were not available for comment
Mainland websites ran photos taken by the Japanese coastguard showing a ship painted in the service's new red, white and blue-striped livery.
China's reorganised coastguard, formally inaugurated on Monday, merges four agencies responsible for fisheries administration, maritime surveillance, customs enforcement and border control. Officials said the move would help boost efficiency in law enforcement and "better safeguard China's sovereignty and maritime rights and interests".
The new service is being equipped with ships from the four bodies being eliminated, along with newly built or repurposed craft that could make it Asia's biggest and most powerful coastguard. The ships are believed to be lightly armed with machine guns and possibly cannons. The Japanese coastguard said the Chinese vessels were apparently taking the place of ships from China Marine Surveillance, one of the bodies being absorbed by the new service.
Those ships had been patrolling in the area for the past eight days as part of a regular Chinese presence in the area.
Since an escalation of tensions over the islands, Japanese and Chinese patrol craft have confronted each other on a regular basis in the waters surrounding them, although no clashes have been reported.