China Uses Coast Guard to Assert Claim Over Japan-controlled Islands

The Chinese government defended as "legitimate" contentious operations by its coast guard over the weekend when pairs of vessels sailed into the territorial waters of the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands.

The uninhabited East China Sea islets are rich fishing grounds and may contain valuable natural resources like oil and gas. Taiwan also claims the islands as part of its coastal county of Yilan, while China's assertion comes through its claim over Taiwan.

Beijing's foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin called the islands "China's inherent territory" on Monday, referring to them by their Chinese name Diaoyu.

"Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islands are China's inherent territory," Wang said at the foreign ministry's daily press briefing. "China Coast Guard patrols and law enforcement activities in the islands' waters are legitimate and lawful measures to safeguard sovereignty."

Wang's remarks came after the Japan Coast Guard said pairs of Chinese vessels had entered the territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands on Saturday and Sunday, approaching Japanese fishing boats in the area.

According to Tokyo-based Japan Times, the China Coast Guard vessels were asked to leave, while Tokyo also protested with Beijing through official diplomatic channels.

China has increased coast guard operations in or near the Senkakus "in a bid to wear down the Japan Coast Guard and test Tokyo's mettle on the issue," the newspaper said.

The actions are part of Beijing's "gray-zone" warfare, which it also deploys against regional neighbors like Taiwan.

China's continued assertion of sweeping maritime claims in the East and South China seas have been highlighted in recent weeks following the government's enacting of a new Coast Guard Law on February 1.

Provisions in the legislation give coast guard ships permission to fire upon foreign vessels operating within its claimed territorial waters.

President Joe Biden offered security reassurances to Tokyo during a phone conversation with his Japanese counter, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, late last month.

Biden and Suga discussed the United States's "unwavering commitment to the defense of Japan" under Article 5 of the joint security treaty, "which includes the Senkaku Islands," said a readout published by the White House.

Article 5 concerns armed attacks by third parties.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized similar commitments to the Philippines at the same time, saying the U.S. would come to its aid in the event of an attack in the Pacific, including the South China Sea.

China lays claim to nearly the entire energy-rich South China Sea, where other claimants include Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.

After China announced the passing of its new Coast Guard Law, Philippine foreign minister Teodoro Locsin Jr. described it as a "threat of war."

Earlier this month, the Chinese Embassy in Manila pushed back against the concerns of regional neighbors, saying the new law "doesn't indicate any change of China's maritime policy."

The statement criticized what it called "baseless accusations" while addressing Locsin Jr.'s comment.

Japan Coast Guard Drill In Manila Bay
File photo: A Japan Coast Guard ship. TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images