The Abe administration is ready to mobilize the Maritime Self-Defense Force for “a maritime policing operation” if a foreign warship enters Japanese territorial waters and its navigation does not constitute “innocent passage” under international law, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tuesday.
“This (policy) has already been adopted (in line with) a Cabinet decision made in May last year,” Suga told a regular news briefing at the prime minister’s office.
He was responding to a question about a report Tuesday by the Yomiuri Shimbun that the administration has decided to apply this policy if a Chinese warship enters territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Under the Self-Defense Law, the defense minister can mobilize MSDF units for maritime policing whenever the Japan Coast Guard appears unable to cope with the situation. This includes scenarios when the Japan Coast Guard is outgunned by the foreign ship.
Such a policing operation is based on domestic laws, and would not immediately mean Japan would be engaging in a war against a foreign country.
Still, mobilization of the MSDF, rather than the Coast Guard, would greatly increase the risk of war.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea allows ships to pass through another country’s territorial waters so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the other state. This transit is known as innocent passage.
It does not permit navigation involving the use of force, information-gathering or propaganda activities.
The Yomiuri also reported that Tokyo informed Beijing of the policy in November, days after a Chinese military reconnaissance ship approached territorial waters around the Senkaku islets. The ship did not enter Japanese waters.
Beijing has often sent government ships into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus, but not warships.
China claims sovereignty over the islands, which it refers to as Diaoyu.