Tensions are rising in the East China Sea after China deployed an armed, former navy frigate for the first time to challenge Japan’s control of contested islands in what may be an attempt to shift Tokyo’s attention away from disputes in the South China Sea.

Three ships including the frigate, which is still equipped with gun turrets and now operated by the Chinese coast guard, sailed within the 12-mile exclusion zone that Japan claims around the islands on Dec. 26, said a Japanese foreign ministry official who asked not to be named, citing government policy. Japan lodged an official protest over the incident.

The escalation in the East China Sea comes at a time of heightened tensions in the South China Sea after the U.S. Navy began freedom of navigation patrols there to challenge China’s claims in territorial contests with the Philippines and Vietnam. Japan is home to the U.S. Seventh Fleet, which is leading the patrols, and backs the U.S. effort. China has repeatedly urged Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to stay out of the South China Sea dispute.

“China doesn’t want Japan to meddle in the South China Sea,” said Giulio Pugliese, an assistant professor at the University of Heidelberg’s Institute of Chinese Studies who specializes in Sino-Japanese relations. “China’s engagement in the East China Sea and its constabulary build-up remind Japan of the risks of stretching out its naval presence to distant Southeast Asian waters.”

An increase in tensions risks a fragile rapprochement between the two Asian powers, whose relations have been strained by the territorial dispute and lingering resentment over Japan’s wartime past. Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping have met twice since the end of 2014, though their pledges to reduce the risk of conflict over the islands have produced few concrete results.

China has expressed concern over Japan seeking a more active security role in Southeast Asia as Abe this year pushed through legislation allowing his country to send troops to the aid of allies under attack. Japan has initiated a more proactive defense role in the region, agreeing to supply coast-guard vessels to the Philippines and Vietnam and holding joint naval drills in June with the Philippines near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Last month, Abe told President Barack Obama that he’d consider sending maritime forces to back up the U.S. operations in the South China Sea. Days later he said that his comments had been misunderstood and Japan had no specific plan to participate.

China is interested in tying “Japan’s focus to the East China Sea in case Tokyo might ‘mistakenly’ believe that the situation has already abated in the East China Sea so that it can start looking at the South China Sea,” said Collin Koh Swee Lean, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

The entry of the three Chinese ships into territorial waters around the islands was the 139th incursion by Chinese ships since September 2012, an official at Japan’s foreign ministry said on Dec. 26. Since the beginning of 2014, the number of foreign ships entering has ranged between four and 10 a month, with eight in November, according to foreign ministry data. Any potential confrontation between the two sides over the islands risks turning into a broader conflict as the U.S. is treaty- bound to come to Japan’s defense in the event of an armed attack.

China has been beefing up its coast guard by modifying naval frigates, according to IHS Jane’s Navy International, which in July published photographs of frigates being painted coast-guard white from naval gray. Both Japan and China deploy civilian coast guard ships to patrol waters they claim as territory to temper the risk of confrontation with more heavily armed naval ships.

The Chinese coast guard’s converted frigate was fitted with auto-cannons, although the main armament has been removed, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs official said. An auto- cannon is capable of rapid firing of shells. IHS Jane’s said that one of the Chinese frigates being modified had most of its arms removed, leaving two twin 37 millimeter mountings in place.

The largest ship the Japanese coast guard has in the division covering the islands is the Ryukyu, which is similar in length to the Chinese frigates and also equipped with two auto-cannons — one 20 millimeter and the other 35 millimeter — said a coast guard official who asked not to be named citing government policy. The Japanese coast guard ships are considered to be more reliable and maneuverable than their Chinese counterparts.

“In the foreseeable future, more and more of the China coast guard ships entering the waters off the isles, or even engaging in standoffs with Japanese coast guard, will be newer, larger and armed vessels,” said Koh, who studies Asian naval security. “This ought to be worrisome insofar as the Japanese come to realize that the China coast guard is fast bridging its capability gap, eroding the qualitative advantages Japanese coast guard has long held over China’s maritime agencies.”

China is also adding to its naval capabilities in the South China Sea. On Dec. 25, three new ships began servicing the PLA Navy stationed in the Spratly Islands, China’s Global Times reported, citing the navy’s official magazine. The ships include a transport and supply vessel, an electronic reconnaissance ship and an oceanic survey ship.

In the East China Sea, ships from both nations have been tailing one another since Japan bought three uninhabited islands from a private owner in 2012. Japan has administered the islands — known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese — since they were handed over by the U.S. in 1972 as part of program to return territory held after Japan’s defeat in World War II.

China Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Dec. 23 that the islands have been part of China’s territory since ancient times and that it was “totally justified” for Chinese coast guard vessels to patrol the waters. The equipment on Chinese coast guard vessels is standard and no different from other countries, he said.


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