On August 5, 2016, a Chinese government vessel intruded into the territorial waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands, following the Chinese fishing vessels. There would be no need to explain the recent Chinese provocative and expansionist behaviors in the Western Pacific, from South China Sea to East China Sea. As for the activities of Chinese maritime policing vessels around the Senkaku, you can refer to a website of Ministry of Foreign Affairs at http://www.mofa.go.jp/files/000180283.pdf.
Frankly, we have been getting used to such Chinese rudeness. But the August 5 incident was special. It has not only intensified the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands, but also non-sequentially raised the possibility of actual clash between Japan and the People’s Republic of China.
The similar incident occurred on September 7, 2010. The Chinese fishing vessel intruded into the territorial waters around Senkaku Islands and continued illegal fishing despite the warning by the Japan Coast Guard to leave. The two cases, however, are fundamentally different.
In the incident of September 7, 2010, Chinese fishing boat came alone, while no vessels of the Chinese maritime policing agencies intruded the territorial water of Japan. The fishing boat neglected the orders of the JCG and continued illegal fishing. Finally, the JCG arrested a drunken Chinese captain for interference of the execution of the Japanese government activities as the Chinese fishing boat collided with JCG vessels. Japan could manage to prove it was effectively governing the territorial waters around the Senkaku. And the nature of the incident was basically understood as accidental, with little commitment by Chinese government.
On August 5, 2016, the fishing vessels were accompanied by the China Maritime Surveillance’s vessel. This fact clearly suggests that the incident was deliberate in nature, and well planned by the Chinese government. And the presence of the CMS vessel would have made it hard for the JCG to enforce Japanese law over Chinese fishing vessels.
Chinese maritime policing vessels have occasionally got on board of the Chinese fishing boats in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Japan (and China as it insists). Most recently, the officers moved from the vessels of China Maritime Surveillance and China Fisheries Administration to Chinese fishing boats in the Japanese EEZ on August 9 and 10. Although the acts could be regarded as the Chinese government’s enforcement of their laws in the area, these acts conform to the ruling of Japan-China Fishery Agreement. That is, each county’s administrative office should exercise control over the fishing vessels of its own county in “provisional measures area” north of the Senkaku Islands.
However, there is no agreement as to who executes the control over the fishing boats in the territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, which is not the “provisional measures area” under the Fisheries Agreement. If the Chinese maritime policing agencies instead execute Chinese law in the territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, it will become totally another story. The law-enforcement activity by the Chinese public vessels in the territorial waters around the Senkaku will be an open challenge to the strong claim of the Japanese government that the Senkaku Islands are under the valid control of Japan. What is more serious, the repeated Chinese behavior would possibly cast doubt on what the United States reassured Japan. President Obama stated on April 24, 2014, “Our commitment to Japan’s security is absolute and article five [of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty] covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku islands.” If the JCG cannot execute control over Chinese private fishing boats, will the American people believe the Senkaku islands are under Japan’s administration?
The August 5 incident should be understood as representing the will of the PRC as a state to weaken Japan’s administrative right and territorial right over the Senkaku Islands. Further provocation by China means that China crosses the red line. The Japanese government will have to consider taking more direct countermeasures.