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Japan Coast Guard protects fishing boat from Chinese vessels near Senkaku islands

The Senkaku islands in the East China Sea are administered by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan.

CABINET SECRETARIAT OF JAPAN

By MATTHEW M. BURKE AND AYA ICHIHASHI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 13, 2020

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The Japan Coast Guard was summoned again Monday after a pair of Chinese naval vessels approached a Japanese fishing boat near disputed islets in the East China Sea, according to the coast guard.

The incident happened shortly after the Chinese ships were spotted near Taisho Island of the Senkaku chain at approximately 10:47 a.m., a spokesman for the 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters told Stars and Stripes by phone Tuesday.

The request for assistance came from members of the Okinawa Fishing Association, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s newly appointed chief cabinet secretary, Katsunobu Kato, told reporters Monday.

Twice in the past six months, Chinese naval vessels have approached fishing boats in waters around the Senkakus that Japan claims as its territory, the coast guard said.

“We have been warning the ships to leave the area” since Monday, the Coast Guard spokesman said.

Japan administers the islands, whose surface area amounts to about 2 ½ square miles, but they are also claimed by China and Taiwan, which refer to them as Diaoyu Dao and Diaoyutai respectively.

The coast guard spokesman declined to say how many ships responded to the call to assist the fishing boat, but no injuries or damage were reported. The fishing boat crew continued working during the incident, the spokesman said.

The incident drew an immediate rebuke from the Japanese government through official diplomatic channels, Kato said.

“We told them to stop and leave the area immediately,” he said at the press conference. “Japan will remain calm but takes a firm stand.”

Kato vowed to “protect our people’s lives, assets and land.”

In Beijing the same day, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao at his weekly press conference called the islands China’s “inherent territory.”

“Patrolling and carrying out law enforcement activities in the relevant waters are also China’s inherent right,” he said, according to a transcript on the ministry website. “The Japanese side should respect this.”

As of Tuesday morning, the Chinese vessels remained in Japanese territorial waters, the coast guard spokesman said. It’s customary in Japan for some government officials to speak to the media on condition of anonymity.

Territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from the low-water line along the coast, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The U.S. has long declined to take a position on the islands’ sovereignty; however, Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both have declared that the Senkakus fall under the U.S.-Japan security alliance.

Though small and uninhabited, the islets are surrounded by fishing grounds and potential oil and gas deposits. Challenges by China to Japanese claims there are becoming frequent, according to the Japan Coast Guard. In May, four Chinese coast guard vessels entered waters near the islands and two of them chased a Japanese fishing boat until Japanese patrol craft intervened.

Since January, Chinese ships have entered the waters near the islands 19 times, according to the Japan Coast Guard. They last approached the Senkakus on Aug. 28, according to the coast guard.

burke.matt@stripes.com
Twitter: @MatthewMBurke1

ichihashi.aya@stripes.com
Twitter: @AyaIchihashi