SHISHI, CHINA – Japan is likely to remain skeptical, though welcoming, of a move by China to steer its fishermen away from the disputed Senkaku Islands, experts said, as Beijing seeks to remove an irritant in ties with Tokyo ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s planned state visit to Japan next spring.
Fisheries authorities in Fujian province issued the order ahead of Friday’s start of the fishing season in the East China Sea, home to the Senkakus, sources close to the matter said a day earlier. The order, issued online, calls on fishermen to “not go near the sensitive waters.”
On Thursday morning, however, fishermen in the province’s city of Shishi were busy preparing to leave port.
“Some boats are headed to fish near the Diaoyu Islands,” a 42-year-old fisherman, using China’s name for the islands, said while preparing his boat to leave Friday morning.
When asked about the government order, the man denied any knowledge of it.
In addition to the warning from the province, the provincial capital Fuzhou and Zhao’an County, both facing the East China Sea, have issued similar orders to their fishermen.
Despite recent improvements in Sino-Japanese relations, the territorial row over the islands is still considered a fragile part of bilateral relations.
During their meeting on the fringe of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka in June, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Xi confirmed that they will work together to realize a trip by the Chinese president to Japan as a state guest “when cherry blossoms bloom.”
In an effort to ensure the success of Xi’s planned visit, China has been striving to better relations with Japan. Through the directive, China hopes to prevent fishing boats from going near the uninhabited islets to avoid a strong backlash in Japan, experts say.
Zhang Baohui, director of Lingnan University’s Center for Asian Pacific Studies in Hong Kong, said the move reflects China’s attempts to improve its relations with Japan.
“It should soothe Japan’s concerns for China’s intentions for [the] Senkakus and reduce the saliency of the Senkaku dispute in Sino-Japanese relations,” Zhang said.
“Both countries have been making efforts to rebuild their relations,” he added. “I think Beijing is impressed by the efforts of the Abe administration and this decision should be part of China’s reciprocal efforts.”
Nonetheless, the Japanese government remains on high alert. In August 2016, 200 to 300 Chinese fishing boats repeatedly entered Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands even after similar instructions were issued. Some Chinese state vessels did the same at the time.
Chinese government ships have been doing so more frequently this year compared to last year.
Japan has repeatedly warned China against a similar situation to 2016 via diplomatic means. “We don’t know how thoroughly those instructions are being given to the fishermen,” said a source at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing.
On Friday, four Chinese Coast Guard ships sailed in Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, in Okinawa Prefecture, for about two hours.
It was the first intrusion into Japanese waters by Chinese government ships since Aug. 6, and the 23rd overall in 2019.
The Chinese ships — the Haijing 1103, the Haijing 1302, the Haijing 2102 and the Haijing 2203 — entered Japanese waters west-southwest of Uotsuri Island in the Senkaku chain between around 10 a.m. and 10:15 a.m., according to the Japan Coast Guard’s 11th regional headquarters in the prefectural capital of Naha.
The Chinese vessels left the territorial waters south of Minamikojima, another island in the Senkaku chain, between around 11:45 a.m. and noon.
Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said that while the move to keep fishermen away from the area near the Senkakus could be taken as an overture by China as a bid to show goodwill to Japan, he was skeptical about whether Japanese officials would view this in a positive light.
“It appears more plausible they remain wary of Beijing’s move and underlying motives,” Koh said. “Suffice it to say, the strategic trust deficit between the two Asian neighbors is deep-seated and nothing more than a more solid signal or indicator that either of them is standing down on their respective positions on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands issue will truly resolve this.”