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Chinese vessels enter waters that Japan claims; A first since new law allowing military force

By JESSE JOHNSON | Japan Times, Tokyo | Published: February 6, 2021

(Tribune News Service) — Chinese government vessels entered Japanese territorial waters near the flash point Senkaku Islands on Saturday — the first time since China passed a new law earlier this month that allows its coast guard to use military force in waters the country claims — including those around the Senkakus.

Two China Coast Guard vessels, including one from its second-largest class of ships, entered the waters around the Japanese-administered Senkakus, which Beijing claims and calls the Diaoyu, around 4:45 a.m. on Saturday, approaching two Japanese fishing boats operating in the area, the Japan Coast Guard said in a statement.

The Japan Coast Guard said it had sent vessels to the area to protect the fishing ships while repeatedly urging the Chinese ships to leave the area. Two other Chinese government ships, including one sporting a cannon-like weapon, were spotted in the so-called contiguous zone just outside the territorial waters, it added.

The Chinese government ships had left the territorial waters, joining the two other vessels in the continguous zone as of 1 p.m., according to the Japan Coast Guard.

China's new coast guard law has stoked concern in Japan, with some in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party urging bolstered measures in the area such as joint military exercises between the Self-Defense Force and U.S. military near the Senkakus.

The islets sit in rich fishing waters of the East China Sea and are believed to be home to vast mineral and gas deposits.

The new law allows the Chinese Coast Guard to take "all necessary measures," including the use of weapons, against foreign organizations or individuals that violate Chinese sovereignty or jurisdiction.

In 2018, China placed the coast guard under the supervision of the ruling Communist Party of China's Central Military Commission, the country's top military body.

The Japan Coast Guard, meanwhile, is bound by strict regulations governing the use of weapons under law, which bans it from conducting military activities.

China has ramped up the number of operations its coast guard and other government vessels conduct around the Senkakus in a bid to wear down the Japan Coast Guard and test Tokyo's mettle on the issue. This culminated last year, when Japan spotted Chinese government vessels inside contiguous and territorial waters near the uninhabited islets a record 333 days.

Japan has typically dispatched coast guard vessels to confront their Chinese counterparts, but has also sent SDF vessels to match Chinese military ships. However, Japanese defense officials have warned that sending more SDF ships to the area could give China a pretext to even further bolster its activities there.

Asked about the passage of China's coast guard law during debate at the Diet on Thursday, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi called the move "deeply regrettable," but avoided directly answering whether Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty would be applicable to the Senkakus' contiguous zone.

In a phone call earlier this month, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden reconfirmed that the security pact, which states that the U.S. will defend territories under Japan's administration in the event of an armed attack, covers the islands. Their call came after three top Biden administration officials spoke with their Japanese counterparts late last month to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to defending the islets.

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