Japan Still While Chinese Ships Approach Disputed Islands

Cina Coast Guard CuttersTOKYO — The Japanese government has watched largely helplessly as protesters in China in recent days have damaged Japanese property and products. Officials are now wrestling with a more nettlesome prospect: how to respond if Chinese activists, possibly escorted by Chinese government boats, take their challenge closer to home by entering waters near disputed islands controlled by Japan.

The first line of response remains a small coast guard with no legal authority to expel foreign ships—a situation that has prompted calls from some politicians to beef up Japan’s defense capabilities in the area.

The adequacy of Japan’s defense was raised after Chinese news reports, picked up prominently by Japan’s top media Tuesday, hinted that up to 1,000 Chinese fishing boats could approach the waters near the islands.

A Japan Coast Guard vessel, bottom, and a Chinese fisheries patrol boat near disputed islands in the East China Sea Tuesday. Though the East China Sea is becoming heavily populated with Chinese trawlers with the start this week of a fishing season, Japanese officials reported that as of Tuesday evening a giant flotilla hadn’t materialized near the islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. The Japanese Coast Guard did report sighting 11 Chinese patrol boats Tuesday in areas adjacent to the Japanese territorial waters surrounding the islands, with three of them later entering the waters temporarily. Six Chinese patrol ships had sailed through those waters Friday, drawing loud protest from officials in Tokyo.

Also Tuesday, two Japanese nationals landed on one of the disputed islands, before leaving at the urging of the Japanese coast guard. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei called it a “provocative act,” and hinted further countermeasures.

Face-offs with Chinese fishing boats remain a distinct possibility, Japanese officials say. The prospect of an extended period of low-level confrontations, perhaps with multiple boats, has fueled debate in Japan over how the nation might handle the situation. The ramming of Japanese patrol ships by a single Chinese fishing boat in 2010 set off a bitter spat between the two countries. The Coast Guard division responsible for the Senkaku area has just nine patrol vessels and 10 smaller patrol boats—hardly enough to handle hundreds of Chinese boats.

In Tokyo, Japan’s top government officials held an emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss a response to the escalating tensions both in Chinese cities and on the sea. “We will stay on guard and take all possible measures,” Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said, referring to the maritime situation, according to the chief government spokesman, Osamu Fujimura, who did not elaborate.

Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister currently running for the presidency of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, declared at a press conference Sunday, “We need to build up deterrence, possibly by considering coordination between the Coast Guard and the Maritime Self Defense Force.” That could be seen by Beijing as escalating the matter into a military one, perhaps inviting China’s military to respond.

Government spokesman Mr. Fujimura denied Japanese press reports that the defense ministry has placed its Maritime Self Defense Force on alert for the arrival of that massive fishing fleet. While a review of territorial security is a good idea, he added, the Coast Guard and the police remain the first responders in the area.

A spokesman for the Maritime Self Defense Force said it flew routine surveillance flights over the East China Sea Tuesday to monitor shipping traffic but didn’t spot alarming movements. “Our understanding is this is not a situation that requires our action,” he said.

Since the 2010 run-in, Tokyo has taken steps to upgrade the Coast Guard, adding a fleet of small patrol boats to deal with fishing boats and enhancing the capability for night patrols, a Coast Guard spokeswoman said.

Setting aside a partisan fight that has obstructed the passage of many other bills, parliament last month passed legislation giving Coast Guard officials the authority to arrest foreigners accused of illegally landing on Japanese territory. That came two weeks after activists from Hong Kong landed on one of the Senkaku islands.

But the Coast Guard still lacks the power to forcefully expel foreign ships intruding into territorial waters. Its officials can only call on them to leave, and conduct onboard inspections if they don’t do so. Some in Japan are calling for this limit to be lifted also.

In a recent editorial, the Sankei Shimbun, a conservative daily, called for such a step, citing the prospect of “Chinese fishery patrol boats, accompanied by a fleet of fishing boats, swarming the waters surrounding the Senkakus.”

“Mr. Noda should know,” the editorial continued, “we can’t protect our land and sovereignty with peace-at-any-price diplomacy.”

By Yuka Hayashi , Dow Jones