China Ships Pass Via Strait North of Japan as Tensions Run High

Japan confirmed that Chinese ships passed through a strait just north of its territory for the first time, a possible show of force after Japan expressed concern that China is expanding its reach in the region.

Five Chinese naval vessels were spotted heading east through the Soya Strait north of Hokkaido Island on July 13, Japan’s Self-Defense Force said yesterday. It was the first time Japan had confirmed such a passage though Chinese ships may have passed through unnoticed before, Takashi Inoue, a spokesman for the Self-Defense Forces, said by phone.

The passage through the strait, also called La Perouse, followed Chinese naval drills with Russia and may exacerbate tensions running high over a territorial dispute and China’s growing military power. Chinese forces are developing new ship, missile and aircraft-carrier technology in a modernization drive that Communist Party leaders insist is peaceful.

“Since roughly 2008, the number and size of Chinese task forces transiting through the Japanese islands has increased,” Taylor Fravel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies China’s territorial claims, said in an e-mail. “Such reminders of China’s growing naval power certainly strikes a nerve in Japan.”

Relations between Japan and China have deteriorated since last September after Japan bought three islands claimed by China from a private owner. Chinese marine surveillance ships have stepped up incursions into Japanese waters with regular patrols in Japanese-controlled waters surrounding the islands, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.

Status Quo

China is trying to change the status quo in the region by force in cases where its interests conflict with those of neighboring countries, Japan said in a defense paper on July 9. China Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded that Japan is hyping the “China threat.”

Russian naval vessels were also spotted traveling through the Soya Strait, according to a statement on Japan’s Defense Ministry website today. The strait, a 27-mile gap between Hokkaido and the southern tip of Russia’s Sakhalin Island, connects the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk.

Seven Chinese warships left Vladivostok July 12 after China and Russia concluded their largest-ever joint naval exercises, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said. Other warships were dispatched to do open-sea training, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Daily website said July 12.

— With assistance by Henry Sanderson

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