Four Chinese Coast Guard vessels entered Japanese territorial waters near disputed islets in the East China Sea, the Japan Coast Guard said, according to a Kyodo News Agency report.
The incursion was the first of its kind in 2018 and took place around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which both Japan and China claim as their own.
“The vessels, including one equipped with what appeared to be machine guns, entered the waters around the uninhabited islets in the East China Sea at around 9:50 a.m. and left about 90 minutes later after warned off by the Japan Coast Guard,” according to Kyodo.
Chinese vessels last entered the disputed waters on December 30, 2017. Since 2012, China’s Coast Guard, People’s Liberation Army-Navy, and civilian fishing trawlers have increasingly entered both the contiguous zone surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and Japan’s territorial sea, with scores of ships entering the disputed region every year. (Taiwanese vessels have also entered the Senkaku’s territorial sea; Taiwan also claims the islands.)
As an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) showed, the Chinese government controls fishing access to these disputed waters in the East China Sea on a seasonal basis, with the summer season coinciding with a sharp increase in fishing activity.
The China Coast Guard has sent its vessels to accompany Chinese civilian fishing trawlers in the past. “Between August 5 and 9, 2016, just days after the end of last year’s ban, 200-300 Chinese fishing boats accompanied by 16 China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels arrived in the waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands,” AMTI noted.
In 2012, the Japanese government, then led by the Democratic Party of Japan, decided to nationalize the Senkaku Islands to prevent them from being acquired by Shintaro Ishihara, the ultranationalist former governor of Tokyo. That incident sparked a major uptick in Chinese vessel incursions into the waters around the islands. In November 2013, China also declared an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) around much of the East China Sea to assert its claim there.
Japan and China have made some diplomatic progress on managing crises in the East China Sea, even though they have not entered into talks over the question of the sovereignty of the islands. In December 2017, the two sides agreed to implement a long-sought crisis management and communication mechanism.