Amid growing criticism from ruling party lawmakers, the government is facing pressure to take a more vocal stance on Chinese ships’ frequent intrusions into waters around the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands after a controversial Chinese law that allows for the use of weapons came into force earlier this month.
The government is struggling to keep a careful balance as one misstep could escalate the situation in the East China Sea.
The Chinese law, which took effect in early February, enables China’s coast guard to use weapons against what Beijing sees as violations of Chinese sovereignty or jurisdiction. China claims the Senkaku Islands, which it calls Diaoyu.
Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi held a telephone conference with his counterparts from the United States, Australia and India on Feb. 18. After the meeting, he told reporters that he had expressed “grave concerns” over the Chinese law at the meeting.
In recent years, Japan had held back on criticizing China by name, reflecting an improvement in bilateral relations.
When a four-way foreign ministers meeting was held in October last year, Motegi only said that the participants exchanged views on the regional situation, including in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.
His explanation after the February meeting marked a stark contrast with the October briefing.
According to a government source, LDP members demanded that he clearly mention China by name.
Conservative members of the LDP are very dissatisfied with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s diplomacy with neighboring countries. “The prime minister has not issued any strong message against China or South Korea,” one young party member complains.
Reflecting the atmosphere, after the Chinese law came into force, many LDP members urged the government to express a stricter attitude toward China at meetings of the party’s foreign affairs division and other occasions.
The Foreign Ministry initially stopped short of branding the Chinese legislation a violation of international law, so as not to provoke Beijing. After the growing calls from the LDP, however, the ministry said it does not see the law as being in accordance with international rules.
At a joint LDP meeting including its national defense division on Thursday, the government presented the view that the Japan Coast Guard can fire at foreign vessels to inflict damage on them if the ships intrude into Japanese territorial waters with the aim of landing on the Senkaku Islands.
A former defense minister admitted that LDP members have lobbied the government hard, and welcomed the government’s statement as a major policy change.
Some LDP members have called for legislation to strengthen cooperation between the Japan Coat Guard and the Maritime Self-Defense Force in order to deal with so-called gray zone situations.
Amid Chinese ships’ frequent incursions into Japanese waters around the Senkakus, Tokyo is growing increasingly worried.
“We are concerned that an accidental clash could occur between Japan and China,” a government official said.
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