On May 8, two China Coast Guard (CCG) ships intruded into the territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands) and pursued a Japanese fishing boat that was operating in the area. Several Japan Coast Guard (JCG) ships patrolling nearby warned the CCG ships, and took steps to protect the fishing boat that reportedly led to a tense face-off. The CCG ships remained near the fishing boat within the territorial waters, not leaving until May 10.
The Japanese government immediately lodged a protest, pointing out that the incursion into territorial waters was an infringement of Japanese sovereignty. Beijing responded that the CCG ships were simply regulating the illegal operations by the Japanese fishing boat in Chinese territorial waters, and demanded that the JCG refrain from obstruction in the future.
What prompted Beijing to do this? The general observation would be that China took advantage of Japan dealing with a rising in COVID-19 infections, by stepping up its offensive against the Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims as Chinese territory. Alternatively, we could analyze it as the Xi Jinping administration adopting a more hardline stance on Japan as a diversion at a time of growing domestic dissatisfaction while the COVID-19 pandemic slows the Chinese economy. Based on available objective information, however, it appears likely that this incident was the result of a CCG policy of cracking down on foreign fishing vessels in East Asia generally.
This was not the first time that Chinese coast guard vessels had pursued Japanese fishing boats in the territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands. The JCG counts it as the fifth case after the establishment of the current CCG in July 2013, but public information shows that there were at least four such cases before that.
In most cases, the pursuit was likely prompted by the presence of media reporters or political activists aboard the fishing boats. In one incident, in April 2013, a Japanese activist group made a prior announcement of its plan to land on the Senkaku Islands, so a fleet of eight Chinese vessels attempted to intercept the group. In other cases, the Chinese probably made visual identification at sea, or somehow acquired information before the fishing boats set out.
By contrast, there was nothing out of the ordinary with the most recent case. To understand it, we need to look at CCG activities in a much wider area. The Chinese authority institutes an annual fishing ban in the East and South China Seas as well as in the Yellow Sea from early May to mid-August to “preserve fisheries resources and the marine environment.” Previously, the CCG only regulated the illegal operations of Chinese fishing boats during this period, but this year, foreign fishing boats are also subject to “suppression” in a campaign called “Liang Jian (Flashing Sword) 2020.” To date, there have been no reports of actual crackdowns on foreign fishing boats, but the CCG pursued the Japanese fishing boat near the Senkaku Islands under this stricter control of foreign fishing boats.
In other words, as long as the fishing ban persists, the CCG will likely try to crack down on foreign fishing boats, not only in the East China Sea but in East Asian waters more broadly. It is likewise possible that CCG ships will pursue Japanese fishing boats near the Senkaku Islands more frequently. It is worth bearing in mind that it was unusual for the CCG ships, in their pursuit of Japanese fishing boats, to remain in the territorial waters for three days, and that it was the first time Beijing had claimed Japanese fishing activity as “illegal.” However, the incident itself was hardly unprecedented.
We should also assume that the CCG crackdown on Japanese fishing boats will continue even after the fishing ban ends. The activities of CCG ships around the Senkaku Islands had already evolved markedly, even before the COVID-19 outbreak. It was always routine for CCG ships to remain in the contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands for three weeks every month, intruding into the territorial waters three times, while seeking refuge in stormy weather. Since May 2019, however, although the frequency of incursions remains the same, the vessels are now stationed in the contiguous zone more or less every day, regardless of the weather. This is probably because the CCG ships have become larger, the crew’s handling has improved, and following an organizational restructuring in July 2018, the CCG is now led by active-duty naval flag officers trained in blue water operations. That is, CCG ships are now able to “target” Japanese fishing boats at any time.
How should Tokyo react if CCG ships go after Japanese fishing boats again? The activities of CCG ships in the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands had already prompted the JCG to develop a posture dedicated to the Senkaku Islands by increase the number of patrol ships and aircraft, while reinforcing its ability to react to incursions into territorial waters, prevent disembarkations, and keep a check on Chinese fishing boats. However, the JCG had not really anticipated a mission of protecting Japanese fishing boats from CCG ships, so we need to consider whether the current posture is sufficient should the CCG actually starts to board Japanese fishing boats inside the territorial waters.
Chinese maritime law enforcement ships began intruding into the territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands in December 2008. A former top Chinese coast guard officer has explained that the aim was to “break down” Japan’s effective control. However, challenging Japanese administrative control by employing force is in violation of the UN Charter, so law enforcement within the territorial waters does not in fact bolster China’s territorial claims. Likewise, the Chinese unilateral imposition of fishing bans around the Senkaku Islands lacks any basis in international law.
Above all, CCG activities are a threat to foreign fishing boats. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit was postponed because of the pandemic, but in future negotiations Tokyo should urge Beijing to cease actions in the East China Sea that have no basis in international law. At the same time, Japan needs to cooperate with the Philippines, Vietnam, and other friendly nations facing the same challenges in the South China Sea, resolutely facing China within multilateral frameworks.
Tetsuo Kotani is a professor at Meikai University and a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.