Two Chinese coast guard ships—including one armed with an “autocannon”—entered Japan’s territorial waters for the second successive day Tuesday and harassed a Japanese fishing vessel, according to reports from Tokyo.
The Chinese government vessels joined two other China Coast Guard ships that had entered and remained in the contiguous zone adjacent to the waters of the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands on Monday, said Japan Times.
The energy-rich Senkakus in the East China Sea are uninhabited but also claimed by the governments of China and Taiwan, which refer to them as the Diaoyu and Diaoyutai Islands, respectively.
Nobuo Kishi, Japan’s defense minister, told reporters Tuesday that a fishing vessel operating off one of the islets, Taisho, was “pursued” by the pair of intruding ships, which were warned off by Japan Coast Guard patrol ships.
According to Kyodo News, Japanese maritime authorities said all four Chinese vessels had left the territorial waters as of late Tuesday morning, with the armed coast guard ship having not shown any intention to use its weapon—described as appearing like an “autocannon.”
Chinese coast guard ships sailed near the waters around the Senkakus on 333 days last year, said Japanese public broadcaster NHK, setting a new maritime record for Beijing’s so-called “grey-zone” tactics in the region.
Tuesday’s incursion marked the seventh such operation in Japanese territorial waters in 2021, as well as the first by an armed vessel since Beijing enacted its controversial Coast Guard Law on February 1.
Provisions of the new legislation permit China Coast Guard vessels to take “all necessary measures”—including the use of force—to stop foreign vessels operating in Chinese territorial waters.
Given Beijing’s vast maritime claims in the East and South China Seas, regional neighbors such as Japan and the Philippines have raised concerns about how Chinese maritime forces might exercise the domestic law.
It has also led to the coast guard being nicknamed China’s “second navy.”
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato Katsunobu said Tokyo had lodged formal protests with Beijing on Monday and Tuesday.
“Regardless of what they are carrying, it is unacceptable that these Chinese coast guard ships are intruding in Japan’s territorial waters,” NHK quoted him as saying.
Last week, the Chinese foreign ministry defended the country’s coast guard operations after government vessels were spotted in Japanese waters near the Senkakus on February 6 and 7.
Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin described the Senkakus as “China’s inherent territory,” calling coast guard activity “legitimate and lawful measures to safeguard sovereignty.”
A different defense was offered by Yan Yan, director of the Research Center of Oceans Law and Policy at the National Institute for the South China Sea Studies, which is headquartered in China’s southern province of Hainan.
Writing in the nationalistic Communist Party newspaper Global Times, Yan said concerns about Beijing’s Coast Guard Law were part of a campaign to “smear” China.
“Chinese maritime enforcement authorities have always exercised goodwill and restraint when performing maritime operations and will not violate the principle of necessity and proportionality,” Yan wrote.
Toshi Yoshihara, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, said China was seeking to gain control of the Senkakus in order to obstruct U.S. military operations in the East China Sea.
“Chinese leaders have concluded that if they can gain effective control of the East China Sea, they will be able to stymie U.S. military operations,” he told Tokyo newspaper Sankei Shimbun and its English-language arm Japan Forward.
“China has a penchant for employing domestic laws to advance its external territorial claims,” said Yoshihara. “That was true of its 1992 Law on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone, under which Beijing advanced claims to various islands and atolls as well as the Senkaku Islands. It was also true of the 2005 Anti-Secession Law that legitimizes the use of force to seize Taiwan.”
Yoshihara said Tokyo required “substantive countermeasures” in order to deter any Chinese strategy to take the Senkaku Islands.