China’s ships are getting bigger and more aggressive, and Japan is scrambling to keep up

china coast guard scarborough
A Chinese Coast Guard ship approaches Filipino fishermen in a confrontation off of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, September 23, 2015.

  • China’s massive Coast Guard, and a new law expanding what it can do, worry its neighbors, especially Japan.
  • Japan is bolstering its own Coast Guard and relying on its alliance with the US to keep its edge against Beijing in their disputes at sea.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

On February 1, a new law granting the China’s Coast Guard (CCG) the ability to use lethal force against foreign vessels in waters China claims went into effect.

The law worries countries that have territorial disputes with China, especially Japan, where the chief concern is that it could lead to the use of force against Japanese vessels around the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that Japan administers and China claims as the Diaoyu Islands.

Hundreds of Chinese vessels, including Coast Guard and Navy ships, routinely enter the waters around those islands, sometimes behaving aggressively, as part of China’s gray-zone operations.

Last year, Chinese vessels were spotted around the Senkakus for a record-setting 333 days, including 111 consecutive days of continuous Chinese presence.

A worrying new law

chinese coast guard
A China Coast Guard ship in the East China Sea near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, December 22, 2015.

The part of the law that causes the most anxiety is Article 22, which authorizes the CCG to “take all necessary measures, including the use of weapons, when national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed upon by foreign organizations or individuals at sea.”

Article 20 of the law authorizes the CCG to demolish “buildings, structures, and various fixed or floating devices” built by foreigners “in the sea areas and islands under our jurisdiction.”

The provisions are not unprecedented. Many coast guards and maritime security agencies operate with similar rules. Indonesia and Malaysia routinely sink foreign fishing vessels (some of them Chinese) in their waters. Even Argentina has fired on and sunk Chinese fishing vessels operating in its waters illegally.

The use-of-force clauses are also a small part of the law, which has 84 articles and is primarily intended to clarify the CCG’s role amid China’s numerous military reforms. China previously had up to five different maritime organizations and has been working to merge them.

“If you read the actual language, it doesn’t read as if it was intended to be a threat to China’s neighbors or even the United States,” Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told Insider. “It reads much more bureaucratically than the Coast Guard getting some expanded capabilities.”

The CCG “was already doing things where they were pretty actively using force in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and elsewhere.” Cooper added. “So, this isn’t really that much of a change from how the CG has been operating.”

The law may actually help prevent misunderstandings. “Some degree of clarification and standardization of procedures is actually a welcome development,” Timothy Heath, a senior international and defense researcher at the Rand Corporation think tank, told Insider.

“This shows the Coast Guard is becoming more professional. It is clarifying to its own people and to the world the conditions under which the CCG regard as appropriate for them to consider all these actions,” Heath added.

The world’s largest Coast Guard

senkaku diaoyu china ships
Chinese and Japanese Coast Guard ships near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, September 10, 2013.

But the risk of escalation is still very real, especially since the CCG will implement the new law in disputed territory. The clarifications and new guidelines may actually embolden Chinese ship captains.

The older, more vague rules prompted some restraint because Chinese officials “weren’t totally sure what the conditions were that would be appropriate for them to use force or take any of these actions,” Heath said.

“Now with that clarity provided through these regulations, these commanders on the water … may feel that, in their judgement, they have a right to respond to incidents much more rapidly and with much greater force than the past,” Heath told Insider.

The CCG certainly has the hardware to be bold. It has over 130 large patrol ships (each displacing more than 1,000 tons), making it “by far the largest coast guard force in the world” according to a 2020 Pentagon report.

CCG ships are also among the largest and the best armed of any coast guard. The CCG’s two Zhaotou-class cutters alone displace over 10,000 tons – more than a US Navy Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser.

Many carry guns up to 76 mm, which are usually only seen on naval vessels. Most CCG patrol vessels can also carry helicopters.

Japan Coast Guard
Members of a Japan Coast Guard anti-terrorist unit intercept a vessel during an exercise in Tokyo Bay, May 18, 2008.

Japan’s Coast Guard (JCG) is much smaller, with only 63 vessels displacing more than 1,000 tons, and its ability to use deadly force is heavily restricted, which means it sometimes has to call the Japanese Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces (JMSDF/JASDF) for assistance.

Japan has made known its displeasure with the new law. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga warned it could “intensify tensions,” and Japan’s defense minister called it “absolutely unacceptable.”

The greatest fear is an escalating encounter with China’s three maritime forces: Hundreds of vessels from China’s Maritime Militia could flood the Senkakus and be intercepted by the JCG. In response, the CCG could be called on and open fire. This would force the JMSDF and JASDF to respond, potentially leading to the Chinese Navy and Air Force showing up, risking war.

Japan works to prevent such a scenario. The JCG maintains a constant presence and responds very quickly to incursions around the Senkakus. They also shadow CCG vessels instead of aggressively confronting them and sometimes call JASDF jets to conduct flyovers.

A military buildup and a strong alliance

Japan Coast Guard
US Coast Guard cutter Kimball and Japanese Coast Guard ship Akitsushima during an exercise near Japan’s Ogasawara Islands, February 21, 2021.

Japan has been slowly building up its military’s capabilities in response to the Chinese threat. The JCG plans to acquire 12 more large patrol vessels by 2023, bringing its fleet to 75.

The JMSDF also plans to acquire new, advanced ships that are smaller, cheaper, and easier to build. This includes the 30FFM-class frigate, the first of which, Kumano, was launched last November and is expected to be commissioned in 2022. The JMSDF hopes to have 22 of the frigates by 2032.

The JMSDF itself is expanding, and is converting its two Izumo-class helicopter carriers to be able to carry F-35B fighters.

Japan is also modernizing its infantry arsenal, building up bases in its southwest, and increasing its F-35 fighter arsenal with plans for an indigenous stealth fighter as well. It has also created an amphibious unit designed for island warfare and modeled on the US Marine Corps.

But Japan will never win a numbers game with China, which has more resources and industrial capacity. In addition to the largest coast guard in the world, China also has the largest navy.

“The big problem for the Japanese is that they’re simply outnumbered and outgunned,” Heath said.

Japan Coast Guard
A Chinese marine surveillance ship next to Japanese Coast Guard ships near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, September 24, 2012.

Increasing Chinese maritime and aerial incursions are straining Japan’s ships, sailors, aircraft, and pilots.

“The problem they have is that the steady-state operational tempo is going up.” Cooper said of the Japanese. “Therefore, it’s going to be harder and harder for them to play man-on-man defense.”

But Tokyo is not alone. The US has a treaty obligation to come to Japan’s defense, and President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have all said the treaty applies to the Senkakus.

“We hold with the international community about the … sovereignty of the Senkakus, and we support Japan obviously in that sovereignty,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said February 23. “We would urge the Chinese to avoid actions using their Coast Guard vessels that could lead to miscalculation and potential physical and material harm.”

The US, which has also criticized the new Chinese law, has sent its own Coast Guard to keep an eye on China and to train with Japan’s Coast Guard. US Marine Corps F-35Bs also may operate from the Izumos after they are converted.

China’s new coast guard law certainly adds a new level of complexity to tensions in the East China Sea, but Japan’s efforts and the US-Japan alliance present challenges to China.

“It doesn’t really matter how much presence Japan has or China has at any given time” around the Senkakus, Cooper said. “The alliance will still apply, and the US has been very clear in standing behind Japan on this.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

Chinese and South Korean companies are buying lots of land near Japanese military bases, and Japan is suspicious

Japanese F 35 Misawa Air force base
An F-35A at Misawa Air Force Base in Japan.

  • At least 80 plots of land near sensitive sites in Japan have been sold to Chinese and South Korean companies in the past decade, and transactions are increasing.
  • The intent of the buyers is not clear, but “we do not believe it can be a coincidence,” an official within the Japanese Cabinet Secretariat said.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A suspicious increase in the number of foreign companies purchasing plots of land close to Japanese military installations has prompted Tokyo to consider restricting such sales.

At least 80 plots of land close to Japanese military bases have been sold to either Chinese or South Korean companies in the last decade or so, a government panel has found, and an official within the Cabinet Secretariat says the transactions appear to be rising.

“We first started closely monitoring these sales seven years ago, but the situation has become much more acute in the last few years,” said the official, who declined to be identified.

“Work is under way on the outline of a basic policy and that will be completed before the end of this year,” the official said, adding that the agency was looking into deals the length and breadth of Japan.

“One of the proposals is for a more complete examination of the reason for the purchase of the land by a foreign company, something that is not specifically required at present,” the official said.

“That means that at the moment, we do not have a clear understanding of the buyer’s objective, but we do not believe it can be a coincidence [that the land is close to sensitive military sites],” he added.

US Air Force Japan paratrooper Keen Sword C-130J Super Hercules
Japan soldiers board a US Air Force C-130J Super Hercules at Tsuiki Air Base, Japan, November 4, 2018.

In late 2016, a Chinese corporation was planning to buy 2.4 hectares of land on the remote island of Taketomi, one of the most southerly islands in the Okinawa archipelago and just 170 km from the Senkaku Islands, which Japan controls but which China claims sovereignty over and knows as the Diaoyus. The town council stepped in at the last minute to buy the residential land so that it did not fall into foreign ownership, but that has not happened elsewhere.

More than 8 hectares of land were obtained by a Chinese company just 3km from the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s Chitose Air Base in Hokkaido. The transaction was raised for discussion by the local government, but officials declined to comment to the South China Morning Post about the sale or what the land was presently being used for.

A South Korean company in 2013 bought a piece of land alongside the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s radar facility on the islands of Tsushima, off Nagasaki Prefecture in southern Japan. The island is around 50km from the coast of South Korea and its strategic location has long made it a critical outpost for the Japanese military.

To further complicate the problem, there are some in South Korea who claim the island should be recognised as part of the Korean peninsula and, since 2005, residents of the town of Masan have staged a festival in June demanding the return of Daemado, the Korean name for the island.

It was this deal that first caught the attention of Japanese officials and aroused suspicions that there may be an ulterior motive behind such transactions.

“When the Korean investor bought the land on Tsushima, we began to look into the legal issues, but the additional cases have prompted these proposals,” the official said.

Part of the problem has been determining whether a purchase is a legitimate development project or whether the company doing the deal is fronting for another entity, he said.

“We cannot answer whether the Chinese government is behind some of these deals because it is often difficult to trace a purchase back to the real investor or find a connection to the government because there can be layers of front companies involved,” the official added.

Garren Mulloy, a professor of international relations at Japan’s Daito Bunka University and an authority on defence issues, said the Japanese authorities had good reason to be concerned.

“For any country in the world, when you have a foreign firm that appears to be a shell company or some other entity that is buying land close to your defence establishments, then you have cause for concern,” he said.

Some of these deals might turn out to be genuine business opportunities, he said, such as the Korean firm that bought land on Tsushima, as there was little likelihood of Japan and South Korea engaging in military action against each other. But deals with other countries might seem more concerning to Tokyo.

Chinese firms are far less open to scrutiny than those in other countries and they are ultimately beholden to their government,” Mulloy said.

japan battleship maritime jmsdf choka kongu
Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ballistic-missile defense ships Chokai, right, and Kongou at JMSDF’s base in Sasebo, southwestern Japan, March 28, 2009.

Government officials declined to comment on whether any Russian companies might also be looking to purchase land in sensitive areas, but Mulloy said it was likely in parts of northern Hokkaido that face Russia.

Some 5,000 square metres of land close to a Self-Defense Force radar and signals monitoring base on the outskirts of Wakkanai was in 2016 sold to a foreign firm that reportedly wanted to develop the site for wind power turbines, although none have as yet been built on the site. Mulloy said that would be of concern to the Japanese military.

“The signals monitoring station there is focused on tracking Russian chatter in the region, but we know that militaries dislike wind turbines being placed close to their facilities as they can interfere with low-level radar,” he said.

Should any of the sites have been obtained by the militaries of a foreign power, the most likely reason was to conduct close-range signals monitoring, Mulloy said.

In the event of an incident in the region – a foreign military aircraft entering Japanese airspace or another North Korean missile launch, for example – there would be a sharp increase in military communications that could be monitored and provide intelligence on the frequencies used, where the messages originated and were sent and what responses were triggered.

“They would be looking for patterns in the communications and any weaknesses that could be exploited,” he said. “That is why the security of bases such as those in Hokkaido and Okinawa is so critical.”

Read the original article on Business Insider