Japanese and Chinese officials downplayed the appearance of Chinese warships off Okinawa Prefecture, but their words also showed that the situation surrounding the disputed Senkaku Islands remains volatile.
The latest incident of concern involved a fleet of seven Chinese Navy ships--two destroyers, two frigates, two submarine support ships and a supply ship—that passed through the contiguous zone that lies immediately outside of Japan's territorial waters on Oct. 16.
Although the ships never entered Japanese territorial waters, the fleet around 7 a.m. traveled through waters separating Yonagunijima and Iriomotejima islands, the first time Chinese Navy ships have been confirmed as passing between those islands.
"There has been a clear phase change," a high-ranking Defense Ministry official said.
However, other government officials were urging calm.
"The latest passage was not in the contiguous zone around the Senkakus,” an aide to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda stressed. “China is also becoming more cautious."
According to Defense Ministry officials, the seven ships straddled the median line between Japan and China from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Oct. 16, and then moved in a northwesterly direction away from the Senkaku Islands, which the Chinese refer to as the Diaoyu Islands.
At an Oct. 16 news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura stopped short of directly criticizing Beijing, saying, "We are unsure what China's intentions are."
There was some speculation that the Chinese fleet took the unusual course of sailing between Yonagunijima and Iriomotejima islands-- about 200 kilometers south of the Senkaku Islands--to avoid Typhoon No. 21.
The seven ships passed between the main Okinawa island and Miyakojima island on Oct. 4 to sail south toward the Philippines to engage in a training exercise.
Foreign ships are allowed to pass through a nation's contiguous zone under international law.
However, Shinsuke Sugiyama, the director-general of the Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, asked the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo on Oct. 16 to "take appropriate measures while considering the larger picture of the Japan-China relationship."
The Chinese National Defense Ministry, in a written response to The Asahi Shimbun on Oct. 16, said about the latest maneuver, "It was a regular training exercise and a passage that is both appropriate and legal."
The ministry statement also said: "Japan has recently sent military aircraft near waters of the Diaoyu Islands and has violated China's sovereignty and interests. We ask that Japan stop actions that expand the situation by making it more complicated."
Japan has increased its vigilance because Chinese military ships have now passed through the contiguous zone. In past cases, only Chinese maritime surveillance ships and fishing boats came near the Senkakus.
After Japan nationalized three of the islands in September, Chinese maritime surveillance and other ships have approached waters around the disputed islands on an almost daily basis.
In response, the Japan Coast Guard has dispatched ships to patrol those waters, while Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers have been deployed to locations more distant than usual.
Even with the passage of the Chinese Navy fleet through the contiguous zone, the government is not planning to review the deployment of MSDF destroyers.
"The SDF has been flexibly employing surveillance aircraft and destroyers as the need arises and has conducted appropriate patrol and surveillance until now,” Fujimura said. “There will be no change."
At the same time, government sources said various simulations were being considered, including the possibility of Chinese Navy ships entering Japan’s territorial waters.
When asked by reporters about the movement by the Chinese Navy, Noda said on Oct. 16 that vigilant patrol and surveillance would continue.
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