Japan warned Beijing of consequences if a Chinese naval vessel near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea intruded into Japanese territorial waters there this month, government sources said Saturday.
The warning, conveyed by then Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki to Chinese Ambassador Cheng Yonghua early on June 9, is thought to have related to the possible mobilization of Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels for maritime security operations.
Such operations can be ordered by the defense minister to respond to situations deemed difficult for the Japan Coast Guard to cope with. The use of arms is permitted, although conditionally.
Saiki had consulted with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on the matter before relaying the warning to Beijing, they said.
Under a package of security-related laws enacted last September, the Cabinet is allowed to approve the dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces by phone to speed up the response to “gray zone” incidents that stop short of military attacks on Japan.
Maritime security operations can therefore be ordered and approved immediately after a foreign vessel is confirmed to have entered Japanese territorial waters in a manner that does not constitute innocent passage as admitted by international law.
Such operations have been ordered three times in the past, including in November 2004, when a Chinese nuclear-powered sub intruded into Japanese territorial waters around the Sakishima Islands in Okinawa Prefecture. The submarine had left the territorial waters by the time the order for the operation was issued.
Around 2 a.m. on June 9, Saiki summoned Cheng to the Foreign Ministry after a Chinese frigate entered a contiguous zone just outside Japanese territorial waters near the Senkakus, a Japanese-controlled uninhabited group of islets, for the first time ever.
According to the sources, Saiki strongly protested the incident and urged immediate withdrawal of the vessel from the zone, telling Cheng that Tokyo would not let Beijing have its way and would “take necessary action” if the ship intruded into Japanese territorial waters.
In response, the Chinese ambassador said he would convey Japan’s message to Beijing urgently. The vessel left the zone at about 3:10 a.m. Thursday.
The Defense Ministry had notified the Foreign Ministry around 10 p.m. the previous day that a Chinese frigate was approaching a contiguous zone near the Senkakus.
The Foreign Ministry then warned China about the ship’s sailing through diplomatic routes several times. An MSDF destroyer dispatched for surveillance activity also repeatedly sent a warning by radio.