China-Japan frictions at sea

A gainst a background of increased friction between Japanese and Chinese ships due to the Chinese Navy’s expanded activities in international waters near Japan, Japan’s Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi agreed in a May 15 meeting in South Korea on the need to establish a hotline mechanism to avert problems at sea. A similar agreement was made three years ago, but little became of it. This time Tokyo and Beijing must make serious efforts to establish a hotline.

Driving China’s enhanced naval activities in the seas near Japan is a desire on the part of Beijing to secure its maritime interests and to develop a blue-water navy capable of operating across open oceans. In January 2009, the Chinese Navy started its first long-term open-sea operation by taking part in a mission to curb piracy off Somalia. Because Chinese Navy activities can directly impact our country’s security environment, Japan must keep tabs on their activities in close cooperation with the United States.

It is said that China’s eventual aim is to deny the U.S. access to the sea between two lines — one linking Okinawa, Taiwan and the Philippines, and the other linking the Ogasawara Islands, Guam and Indonesia — to prevent American interference if China militarily “liberates” Taiwan and to increase its naval presence in the area.

Tokyo should not hesitate to protest to Beijing when the latter’s maritime activities infringe upon Japan’s interests, but Tokyo must do so in a coolheaded manner. One significant problem is that China’s military activities, including its defense budget, lack transparency. Tokyo and Beijing should do their utmost to strengthen mutual confidence-building measures, including establishment of the hotline agreed upon by Mr. Okada and Mr. Yang.

Friction occurred in April between Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Chinese Navy as a fleet of 10 Chinese naval vessels, including two submarines, three frigates and three destroyers, sailed south and then north between Okinawa and Miyako islands. On April 7-9, the fleet carried out training exercises, including helicopter flights, in the middle of the East China Sea. On April 8, before the fleet reached the line linking Okinawa and Miyako, a Chinese naval helicopter, at an altitude of 30 meters, flew within 90 meters of the 4,650-ton MSDF destroyer Suzunami. The MSDF said there was a danger of a collision because the top of Suzunami’s mast rises 40 meters above the sea.

Attention should be paid to the fact that the incident occurred just a few days before Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Chinese President Hu Jintao met on the sidelines of the nuclear security summit in Washington. Japan’s foreign ministry brought up the matter with China on May 12 in Tokyo and Beijing, but Mr. Hatoyama did not mention this incident in his May 13 (Japan time) meeting with Mr. Hu.

On April 10, the Chinese naval fleet passed the line between Okinawa and Miyako islands while sailing south. On April 21, as it was returning north some 500 km off Okinawa Island, a Chinese helicopter twice circled the 3,100-ton MSDF destroyer Asayuki at a distance of a mere 90 meters. This time, Japan lodged a protest with the Chinese embassy in Tokyo on the same day. Before the incident, the Chinese naval fleet had conducted training exercises west of Okino Torishima Island, Japan’s southernmost island. On April 22, the Chinese naval fleet, returning north, was seen passing between Okinawa and Miyako islands.

In June 2008, Japan and China agreed to jointly develop natural-gas fields in the East China Sea. On May 3, however, another incident occurred there when a Chinese 1,690-ton marine survey ship stalked the Japan Coast Guard’s 3,000-ton survey ship Shoyo for three hours and 45 minutes in what Japan claims to be the Japanese side of the median line demarcating the exclusive economic zones of the two countries in the East China Sea — about 320 km northwest of Amami Oshima Island. Beijing rejected Japan’s protest, saying the waters where the incident occurred belong to China.

Japan protested that the maneuvers of the Chinese helicopters were dangerous, but China countered by saying that Japan’s MSDF ships had followed Chinese ships and put its naval training under surveillance. To avert any incident that may heighten tensions, the two countries must jointly work out a crisis-management mechanism that will enhance self-restraint on both sides and thereby minimize the chances of provocative actions taking place.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is scheduled to visit Japan at the end of May. Mr. Hatoyama and Mr. Wen must make serious efforts to develop a mechanism to prevent friction between Japanese and Chinese ships, and to smoothly promote joint development of natural gas resources in the East China Sea.