Japan's concern over a standoff with China over the disputed Senkaku Islands is deepening as Beijing is dispatching helicopter-carrying vessels to the surrounding waters almost daily.
Japanese officials fear that if a Chinese ship launched a helicopter while intruding in Japan’s territorial waters, it could elevate the dispute to the next level.
The Japan Coast Guard and the Defense Ministry are closely monitoring voyages of the Haijian 50, which can be loaded with helicopters.
The vessel, belonging to the China Marine Surveillance, an agency of the government’s State Oceanic Administration, sailed in the contiguous zone next to Japanese territorial waters surrounding the islands on 10 days in February.
Of these voyages, it encroached into territorial waters on four days.
The Japanese side was most alarmed on Feb. 18, when the hanger doors opened on the Haijian 50 while the ship was approaching an area about 1 kilometer to the southeast of the Uotsurishima islet, the largest of the Senkaku Islands, in the East China Sea.
If an aircraft had been launched in Japanese territorial waters, it could have instantly violated Japanese airspace, the officials said.
In a more alarming scenario, the helicopter could have landed on the islet, they said.
This was not the first time the Haijian 50 has threatened to deploy a helicopter. On Dec. 25, it took a similar action when it was in the contiguous zone off the islands.
If a Chinese aircraft flew toward Japanese airspace, it would be a standard response of the Self-Defense Forces to track it on radar and scramble a fighter jet from its Naha base, about 410 kilometers away, in response.
But if a helicopter were launched from a vessel in Japanese territorial waters, the SDF “would be certainly late” in responding and taking appropriate action, according to a government official.
The Yuzheng 206, one of the largest surveillance vessels and which was converted from a naval ship in December, sailed into the contiguous zone eight days in a row until Feb. 28. It intruded in Japanese territorial waters on three of those days.
The patrol ship, from the Ministry of Agriculture’s Bureau of Fisheries, can also carry helicopters, like the Haijian 50.
“Since the Yuzheng 206 is in the 5,000-ton range, it can sail regardless of weather conditions,” an official with the Japan Coast Guard said.
The agency and the ministry’s bureau are law enforcement bodies tasked with protecting Beijing’s maritime interests, according to the Chinese foreign ministry.
Since the two vessels are not naval ships, the Japan Coast Guard, not the SDF, deals with them, and the Coast Guard is not authorized to respond in the event of an airspace violation or a landing on the islands by a helicopter.
Although neither of the two vessels made unlawful entries into Japanese waters and the contiguous zone in January, they trespassed in both waters in February.
Japanese government officials speculate that authorities at the two government entities were doing this to raise their profile among the Chinese populace as the March 5 opening of the National People's Congress nears.
A senior official with the Defense Ministry warned that Japan will be put in an increasingly difficult position with the passage of time, given that China is scrambling to build more patrol ships.
China’s dispatch of marine surveillance ships, instead of naval vessels, is apparently aimed at fending off intervention by U.S. forces on the basis of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, Japanese officials said.
As long as China dispatches patrol ships, the situation will be handled by the Japan Coast Guard, not the SDF.
Tokyo is set to draw up plans to deal with the dispute on the assumption that other Chinese surveillance vessels are equipped with helicopter-carrying capabilities.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tried to put the brakes on China’s actions by stressing the Tokyo-Washington alliance in a news conference after his summit meeting with President Barack Obama on Feb. 22.
“We have agreed to construct an order based on the rule of law, not force,” he said.
But China was quick to strike back the following day.
The state-run Xinhua News Agency condemned Abe, saying that the Japanese leader, overly excited, was snubbed (by Obama).
Japanese Foreign Ministry officials admit that it is difficult to bring Beijing into talks over the dispute as Chinese vessels repeat their incursions.
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