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A file picture of a Japan coastguard vessel sailing near the disputed East China Sea islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Photo: Reuters

Japan files diplomatic protest over Chinese ships near disputed Diaoyu Islands

  • Chinese coastguard vessels have been operating near the islands, known as the Senkaku in Japan, for 65 consecutive days
  • Tokyo said it will respond ‘firmly and calmly’, as analysts point out the showdown in the East China Sea is being replicated elsewhere in the region
Japan has filed a diplomatic protest with Beijing after four Chinese government ships were again monitored in waters close to the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands on Wednesday.
Chinese coastguard vessels have been operating for 65 consecutive days within or near the territorial waters around the uninhabited islands that Japan claims as its sovereign territory and knows as the Senkakus. China and Taiwan also claim the islands.

This is the longest period since September 2012, when Beijing and Tokyo were at loggerheads over the question of sovereignty after the Japanese government bought some of the islands from the Japanese family that owned them.

Explained: Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to comment on what the Chinese ships might be doing in waters around the islands.

“The Senkaku Islands are under our control and are unquestionably our territory, historically and under international law. We believe it is extremely serious that these activities continue,” he told a press conference. “We will respond firmly and calmly to the Chinese side.”

Suga’s comments come five weeks after Japanese coastguard vessels intervened to stop a group of Chinese coastguard ships pursuing a Japanese fishing boat that was operating within territorial waters around Uotsuri, one of the islands in the archipelago. The Chinese vessels left the area after receiving a warning via radio.

“Beijing is constantly trying to probe and find opportunities to exploit Japanese weaknesses around the islands as part of its longer-term strategy,” said Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University.

The aim, he said, is to enter the disputed waters to demonstrate to the international community that Japan’s claim is weak because it cannot exercise administrative control over the area – a strategy dubbed “lawfare”.

A Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force surveillance plane flies over the disputed islands, called the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. File Photo: Kyodo

Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, agreed that China has long-term ambitions over the Diaoyu Islands and other territories that it presently appears to be simply helping itself to.

“With the Senkakus, Beijing has been waging a 100-year battle intended to show the world that the islands are administered by China and I would say that any Japanese politician who said now that they could halt that ambition is dreaming,” he said.

“The only way that Japan has of stopping Chinese moves against the islands is to consolidate our security relationship with the US,” he said. “The US military is the only force that China is afraid of.”

The problem, Shimada conceded, is that US President Donald Trump has shown himself to be “reluctant to help other countries, even America’s allies”.

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“I am afraid that China might misunderstand Washington’s position and conclude that this US administration will not help Japan resist Chinese moves against the Senkakus,” Shimada said. “The US-Japan security pact is in place, but there are no guarantees that the US will honour it.”

The showdown in the East China Sea is being replicated elsewhere in the region, analysts point out, with Chinese military aircraft entering Taiwanese airspace in recent days; an ongoing dispute between China and five Southeast Asian states over territory in the South China Sea; and a deadly clash between Indian and Chinese troops along their undemarcated border that left 20 Indian soldiers dead.
The USS Theodore Roosevelt is one of three US aircraft carriers operating in the region. Photo: Reuters
Both Washington and Beijing have also been deploying more warships to the South China Sea region, and for the first time in three years, three US aircraft carrier battle groups have been operating in the Pacific in recent days.
The USS Theodore Roosevelt – which was laid up in Guam for more than two months in the spring after more than 100 of its crew contracted the coronavirus – is operating with its strike group off Guam. The USS Nimitz and its accompanying flotilla is off the west coast of the US and the USS Ronald Reagan is operating in the Philippine Sea after leaving its home port in Japan.

American warships patrol Indo-Pacific, as US-China tensions deepen

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Japan had been making headway in engaging with China, and President Xi Jinping was due to pay a state visit to Tokyo later in the year. The pandemic has thrown bilateral relations off kilter, although Japan has resisted pressure from the US to condemn China’s handling of the crisis.
On Wednesday, Japan joined other G7 countries calling for China to “reconsider” its proposed Hong Kong national security law, saying it had “grave concerns” about the law threatening the city’s rights and freedoms.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Tokyo decries Chinese ships near disputed islands