China deployed ships to waters near islands disputed with Japan for a record 28 hours, drawing a formal protest as it repeated a strategy of pressing its territorial claims through bolder projections of maritime power.
Ships from China’s newly formed coast guard remained in the Japanese-controlled waters for the longest time since Japan bought the islands last year, Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a briefing in Tokyo today. Japan’s Foreign Ministry summoned a Chinese diplomat and “sternly protested,” he said.
The Chinese deployment mirrors an approach it has taken to press its sovereignty claim in a dispute with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. The moves come as China expands its defense spending and President Xi Jinping seeks to make China a maritime power in the region.
“It’s very similar,” said Chiaki Akimoto, director of the Tokyo bureau of the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, referring to China’s actions toward Japan and the Philippines. “The idea is to escalate little by little. At the same time, they want to see how Japan reacts.”
In June, the Philippines protested what it called “the massive presence of Chinese military and paramilitary ships” around territory it claims in the South China Sea. The Philippines asked the United Nations in January to rule on its dispute with China, which moved to take control of the Scarborough Shoal a year after a standoff between Philippine and Chinese ships.
Four Chinese Coast Guard ships spent about 28 hours in Japanese-controlled waters around the islands, part of the time remaining stationary within 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) of Minami Kojima island, according to e-mailed statements from the Japanese Coast Guard. The ships left the waters around the islands, known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese, at about noon today.
“It is clear that the Senkaku Islands are Japan’s territory, in terms of history and international law,” Suga said today. “This incursion into our territorial waters is the longest since our government bought the islands in September. It is extremely regrettable and we cannot accept it.”
The Chinese ships forced out Japanese “right-wingers” from waters around the disputed islands, the Chinese embassy in Japan said in a statement on its website today. The charge d’affaires filed a diplomatic protest today over the incident and requested that the Japanese ships immediately leave the territory and prevent any future incidents, it said.
The escalation comes days before the Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan’s World War II defeat, a sensitive occasion among Asian nations invaded and occupied by the country in the first half of the 20th century.
Politicians from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party may visit the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including leaders convicted as war criminals by an Allied tribunal. Abe will stay away on the anniversary to avoid raising hackles in China and South Korea, the Nikkei newspaper reported today.
Relations between Japan and China have deteriorated since the Japanese government purchased three of the five islands from their private owner, hurting trade ties between Asia’s two largest economies. Trade data released today showed that China’s exports to Japan fell 2 percent from a year earlier in July, the sixth straight decline.
Since last September, China has regularly sent ships into the waters off the islands. In December, a Chinese marine surveillance propeller plane was spotted for the first time in Japanese-controlled airspace near the islands. Last month, Japan confirmed that Chinese ships passed through a strait just north of its territory for the first time.
The latest moves are aimed at forcing Japan to recognize China’s claim to the islands, which the government in Tokyo has so far refused to do, according to analysts including Taylor Fravel, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Like Scarborough, China is trying to create a new status quo,” Fravel said in an e-mail. “Unlike Scarborough, however, China is seeking to demonstrate that it rejects Japan’s exclusive control of the islands, not gain effective control over them.”
Xi said earlier this month that China must improve its ability to safeguard its maritime rights while settling disagreements peacefully. “In no way will the country abandon its legitimate rights and interests,” Xi said.
The Chinese action around the islands comes two days after Japan unveiled the largest military ship it has produced since World War II. Yesterday, China’s Defense Ministry said Asian neighbors must be alert to Japan’s defense buildup after it unveiled the ship.
China is expanding its military as well. The government plans to boost military spending by 10.7 percent this year, and commissioned its first aircraft carrier last year.