China’s militarized ‘fishing fleets’ are trying to wrest control of the Senkaku Islands from Japan
For more than a decade, China has sought to take control of the Senkaku Islands through its “fishing fleets”, whose vast presence is effectively endangering the livelihoods of local Japanese fishermen.
“The Chinese ships are armed,” Hitoshi Nakama, an Okinawa adviser turned fisherman, told JAPAN Forward. “The patrol boats have guns mounted on the decks.”
Located in the East China Sea, the abundant waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands are home to a wide variety of plants and animals, presenting rich and sought-after fishing grounds.
The Senkaku Islands were officially incorporated into Japanese territory in 1895, a property that was reaffirmed after World War II in the San Francisco Peace Treaty and in 1972 by the Okinawa Reversion Agreement.
In a 2008 meeting between President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Hu Jintao and then Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, China-Japan relations were recognized by the two countries as vital for their shared responsibility to ensure peace, stability and growth in the Asia-Pacific region.
Less than a year after signing a joint statement with Japan promoting a “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests”, two Chinese government navy ships hastily entered Japan’s territorial sea enveloping the Senkaku Islands.
Ignoring repeated pleas from the Japanese coast guard to leave the area, the Chinese vessels remained in the waters for around nine hours, sending a clear message that they intended to challenge Japan’s sovereignty over the islands.
In 2014, President Barack Obama explicitly declared that the disputed islands were covered by the US-Japan security treaty, becoming the first US president to do so.
“I have said many times that the United States is and always will be a Pacific nation,” Obama said at a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Abe. “America’s security and prosperity are inseparable from the future of this region, and that is why I have made it a priority for renewing American leadership in Asia-Pacific.”
“Let me reaffirm that our commitment to the security of Japan is absolute,” he added, “and that Article 5 covers all territories under Japanese administration, including the Senkaku Islands.” .
Yet China continues to claim ownership of the Senkaku Islands through intrusive presence and intimidation, ignoring agreements, treaties and maritime law.
“They started appearing around the islands in 2010 and their numbers have increased every year since,” Nakama told the South China Morning Post. “China only suddenly started claiming the islands after it was reported that oil reserves could lie under the seabed near the islands.”
“No Chinese have ever lived there,” he said. “The only people who lived on the islands were Japanese.”
As China forcefully projects its maritime military capability, tensions around the islands continue to escalate.
More than 200 Chinese fishing vessels operating in the contiguous area of the Senkaku Islands have been identified by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (MOFA-Japan).
According to data released by MOFA-Japan, the number of confirmed Chinese fishing vessels warned to leave Japanese territorial waters increased by more than 200% between August 5 and August 9, 2016.
While that number quickly dwindled over the following weeks due to an increased Japanese Coast Guard response, China continues to pursue maritime control of the disputed islands.
A press release issued by MOFA-Japan strongly protested the presence of the Chinese vessels.
“Following the series of activities carried out by the Chinese military in the waters and airspace of the East China Sea in June, China is trying to unilaterally change the status quo,” Foreign Minister Kashida said. in the press release. “It must be said that these activities have a significant negative impact on the state of Sino-Japanese relations.”
“The only way to resolve this situation is for China to withdraw its ships without delay and improve the situation on the ground in a clear and tangible way,” Kashida added. “I strongly demand an appropriate response from China.”
Yet Chinese ships continue to maintain a constant presence in the region, with violations officially noted by the US Department of Defense.
“The PRC continues to use maritime law enforcement vessels and aircraft to patrol near the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands,” the office of the secretary of defense wrote in its 2021 annual report to Congress. “In 2020, the PRC intensified its efforts to challenge Japan’s control over the islands by increasing the duration and insurance of its patrols.”
As of June 4, 2021, Chinese vessels have navigated the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands for a record 112 consecutive days. The previous record was 111 consecutive days from April to August 2020.
China sent seven Coast Guard vessels in August 2021, including four equipped with cannons, to the disputed Senkaku Islands, an “extremely serious” incident and the largest of its kind since 2016, Stars and Stripes reported.
The Japanese government reportedly lodged a protest with Beijing after the incident, but it is unclear when and at what level the protest was made.
Japanese fishermen continue to be tracked in the East China Sea, visibly harassed by Chinese vessels.
Nakama has taken to YouTube to expose the harassment he and other fishermen face from Chinese vessels, with his video topping 200,000 views.
“It’s an attack,” Nakama said. “Japan must defend itself.”