As part of its structural reorganisation efforts, the administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping has announced that the China Coast Guard, which has dispatched government vessels to waters near the Senkaku Islands, will be transferred from under the control of the Public Security Ministry, which is responsible for maintaining domestic security, to under the administration of the armed police forces, affiliated with the military.
Xi holds command over the Chinese military. He has prepared a framework that will provide unified leadership and management of the military and coast guard as he seeks to make his dream of China becoming a maritime power a reality.
In addition to its activities in the East China Sea, China also has been continuing its self-serving advances in the South China Sea, where it is making manmade islands into military strongholds, among other things. These moves, which unilaterally increase regional tensions, cannot be overlooked. Xi has a responsibility to provide leadership over those involved to prevent a contingency.
Since the Japanese government nationalised the Senkaku Islands in 2012, Chinese government ships’ monitoring activities in waters near the islands have become a regular, normal practice. Even now, Chinese ships make incursions into Japan’s territorial waters two or three times a month.
In a bid to assert its “sovereignty” over the islands, China also has stepped up its shows of strength, including moves by its navy and air force. In January, a Chinese naval submarine was confirmed to have passed through the contiguous zone near the Senkaku Islands.
Regarding these actions, which pour cold water on efforts to improve Japan-China ties, the government needs to repeatedly convey Japan’s position at summit meetings and other occasions.
Both Japan and China have used non-military responses, in principle, to deal with friction over the Senkakus. That is because if the Self-Defence Forces and the Chinese military were mobilised in the region, it could lead to an accidental clash. Japan must continually press China to exercise self-restraint so the situation does not escalate.
To prevent a crisis from happening, it is vital that both nations agree on a maritime and aerial communication mechanism between the SDF and the Chinese military. This also would be helpful in defusing tensions between the Japan Coast Guard and the China Coast Guard, which eyeball each other on the front line.
At the same time, it is important for Japan to boost its warning and surveillance capabilities.
Vessels with a displacement of 1,000 tonnes or more are considered necessary for surveillance activities in waters around the Senkaku Islands. The China Coast Guard has about 120 such ships, significantly more than the JCG, which has about 60.
The China Coast Guard receives retired ships no longer needed by the military and has pressed ahead with making its state vessels bigger and better armed. It undoubtedly will continue to increase and strengthen its fleet against a backdrop of national power.
In 2016, the Japanese government set a plan to bolster its coast guard capabilities, in which it committed to accelerating such things as the enhancement of patrol vessels and surveillance bases. These steps should be steadily implemented. The government also should consider devising policies for long-term objectives, such as acquiring better equipment, to improve the nation’s maritime security capabilities.