A Chinese navy reconnaissance vessel entered Japanese territorial waters near Kuchinoerabu Island off Kagoshima Prefecture early Wednesday morning — the first time since 2004 that a Chinese military ship has done so.
Wednesday’s incursion comes just under a week after a Chinese naval frigate entered the contiguous zone just outside Japan’s territorial waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
According to the Defense Ministry, a Maritime Self Defense Force P-3C patrol aircraft spotted the Chinese spy ship sailing into Japanese waters west of Kuchinoerabu at around 3:30 a.m.
The ministry said it warned the Chinese ship to exit the territorial waters — generally defined under international law as within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of a nation’s land border — prompting it to leave the waters south of Yakushima Island, sailing southeast, at around 5 a.m.
Wednesday’s incursion was the second time since the end of World War II that a Chinese military ship entered Japanese waters. The last time was in 2004, when a Chinese submarine was detected in the territorial waters near Ishigaki Island in Okinawa Prefecture. In response, Yoshinori Ono, the Defense Agency’s director general at the time, ordered the MSDF to boost its maritime security measures.
Such an order was not issued this time as the Chinese ship left before the Defense Ministry could determine if the passage involved any malicious intent, the ministry said.
International law allows all ships, regardless of their country of registration, to pass through another country’s territorial waters so long as they do not endanger the peace and security of the coastal state.
While Beijing’s intentions remain unclear, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said that the Chinese ship entered the waters after following two Indian ships participating in the trilateral Malabar drills. Japan, the U.S. and India have been conducting those exercises in the waters east of Okinawa, near the Senkakus, since last Friday.
The Chinese ship also shadowed the U.S. aircraft carrier John C. Stennis, which was participating in the joint exercise, Reuters reported, citing a Japanese official.
The intrusion by the Chinese navy comes just six days after a Chinese Navy frigate entered the contiguous waters near the Japanese-administered Senkakus, which are also claimed by China and Taiwan, where they are known as the Diaoyu and Tiaoyutai, respectively.
While the Senkakus are uninhabited, Kuchinoerabu Island has a population of 123 as of the end of last month. It is a popular tourist destination and a part of Yakushima National Park.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said that Kenji Kanasugi, director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, lodged a protest with the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo, highlighting Tokyo’s “concerns about the overall activities of the Chinese military, which have been escalating tensions.”
After last week’s incident, then-Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki, who was succeeded by Shinsuke Sugiyama on Tuesday, summoned Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua to condemn the Chinese action in person. This time, however, Tokyo stopped short of issuing a summons, citing the differing natures of the two incidents.
“China has long been claiming the Senkaku Islands, sending its patrol ships into the contiguous waters,” Kishida told reporters Wednesday. “The Chinese ship entered the territorial waters this time, but we are evaluating what this Chinese action means in the context of international law.”
Tensions in the East China Sea have been flaring in recent weeks ahead of scheduled ruling by an arbitration court at The Hague in the territorial dispute between Beijing and Manila over the South China Sea.
A Chinese fighter jet made an “unsafe” intercept of a U.S. spy plane that was patrolling over the East China Sea on June 7, two days before the Chinese frigate entered the contiguous zone near the Senkakus.
Nakatani and U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Scott Swift met at the Defense Ministry on Tuesday, agreeing that Tokyo and Washington would cooperate to ensure stability in the East China Sea.