Japan protests as Chinese navy frigate enters contiguous zone in East China Sea

Escalating the tensions in the already conflicted East China Sea, a Chinese naval ship on Thursday, entered a contiguous zone outside Japanese territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands, for the first time. The Chinese frigate, a Jiangkai-1 class modern frigate armed with sea-skimming anti-ship missiles and short-range air defence missiles sailed to within 24 miles of the disputed islands of Senkaku, shortly after midnight.

Japan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki summoned Chinese Ambassador Cheng Yonghua to the ministry to ‘express a serious concern’. Saki told the ambassador that the islands are an inherent part of Japan’s territory, in terms of history and international law and demanded the vessel to move out of the area immediately. The Chinese vessel left the waters about an hour later.

The islands Uotsuri, Minamikojima, and Kitakojima, collectively known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu and which lie about 220 km (135 miles) northeast of Taiwan, are important because they lie close to key shipping lanes and potentially rich oil and gas reserves. The nearby waters are also rich fishing grounds. Japan has administered the five uninhabited islands and three barren rocks since 1895, as part of their Okinawa Prefecture while China claims them for their own.

Countries can patrol their contiguous zone, adjacent to the disputed territory, for customs and immigration violations, but cannot prevent the passage by other nations’ vessels.

Japanese and Chinese coastguard vessels frequently patrol near the islands. However, until now both countries have restrained themselves from sending warships to nearby waters to avoid a flare up of tensions and a descent into armed combat.

Earlier this year, Japan protested after China used an armed coastguard vessel for the first time, but dispatching a naval combatant ship marks a step up in pressure.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga criticized Beijing for escalating regional tension. “We are worried that this action raises tensions to a higher level,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga said at a regular press briefing in Tokyo.

“Related ministries are working together to deal with this and we will work closely with the U.S.,” Suga added.

Meanwhile, China’s Defence Ministry said on Thursday that its navy had every right to operate in Chinese waters. “Chinese naval ships sailing through waters our country has jurisdiction over is reasonable and legal. No other country has the right to make thoughtless remarks about this,” it said in a statement sent to Reuters.

This latest move by China is being seen as an aggressive response to criticism directed at the country from both Japan and the U.S. for its island and runway building activities in the South China Seas. Both US and Japanese have been approaching Southeast Asian nations that have territorial conflicts with China to join hands to counter China’s expansions. The main concern is freedom of navigation through the strategically located shipping lane which runs through the South China Seas. There is also the fear that China will soon announce an ‘Air Defence Identification Zone’ in the South China Sea, as it did over the East China Sea and the Senkaku chain in 2013.

Japanese Minister of Defence Gen Nakatani last week described China’s actions as ‘unilateral and coercive’. There are worries that China will try to expand itself into the East China Sea and beyond.

China was censured at the Group of Seven summit in Japan, and then again in June at the Asia Security Summit over its expansionist activities. China, by this act of belligerence and defiance perhaps means to show that it is not ready to give up on its claims in both the East China Sea and the South China Seas.

China’s move also comes ahead of an expected ruling by the International Tribunal. The Philippines brought the case, which involves South China Sea islands, to the court; China is refusing to participate.

Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani on Thursday told a press conference in Singapore that China is pushing for a no compromise stance on territorial issues. Japan is also investigating the presence of three Russian warships in the area about the same time further complicating the issue. Concerns are being raised as to whether this was a joint show of force by Russia and China.

Russia and Japan are locked in a territorial dispute over the return of islands seized by Moscow at the end of World War Two. Suga said the government was investigating to uncover any link between the movements of Chinese and Russian vessels.

Meanwhile, Japan, the United States and India are readying themselves for major joint naval exercise, dubbed Malabar, from Friday in the nearby Western Pacific.

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