China's Militarized 'Fishing Fleets' Try to Wrest Control of Senkaku Islands from Japan

For more than a decade, China has sought to seize control of the Senkaku Islands by means of its "fishing fleets," the vast presence of which effectively endangers the livelihood of local Japanese fishermen.

"The Chinese ships are armed," Hitoshi Nakama, an Okinawan councilor-turned-fisherman, told JAPAN Forward. "The patrol vessels have cannons mounted on the decks."

Located in the East China Sea, the abundant waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands are home to vastly diverse plants and animals, presenting rich and desirable fishing grounds.

The Senkaku Islands were formally incorporated into Japanese territory in 1895, an ownership that was reaffirmed both after World War II in the San Francisco Peace Treaty and in 1972 by the Okinawa Reversion Agreement.

In a 2008 meeting of then-President Hu Jintao of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Japan's then-Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, the Japan-China relationship was recognized by both countries as vital to their joint responsibility of ensuring 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 naval vessels hastily intruded Japan's territorial sea enveloping the Senkaku Islands.

Ignoring repeated calls from the Japan Coast Guard to vacate the area, the Chinese vessels remained in the waters for some nine hours, sending a clear message that they intended to challenge the sovereignty of Japan over the islands.

In 2014, President Barack Obama explicitly declared the disputed islands to be covered by the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, becoming the first U.S. president to do so.

"I've said many times the United States is and always will be a Pacific nation," Obama said in a joint press conference with Prime Minister Abe of Japan. "America's security and prosperity is inseparable from the future of this region, and that's why I've made it a priority to renew American leadership in the Asia Pacific."

"Let me reiterate that our treaty commitment to Japan's security is absolute," he added, "and Article 5 covers all territories under Japan's administration, including the Senkaku Islands."

Yet China continues to press its claims of ownership of the Senkaku Islands through intrusive presence and intimidation, ignoring agreements, treaties and maritime law.

"They started turning up around the islands in 2010 and 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 might lie beneath the seabed close to the islands."

"No Chinese people have ever lived there," he said. "The only people who have lived on the islands were Japanese."

As China forcefully projects its maritime military capability, tensions over the islands continue to escalate.

Upwards of 200 Chinese fishing vessels operating in the contiguous zone of the Senkaku Islands have been identified by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (MOFA-Japan).

According to data published by MOFA-Japan, the number of confirmed Chinese fishing vessels warned to leave Japanese territorial waters increased more than 200% between August 5 and August 9, 2016.

While that number rapidly declined in the following weeks due to a strengthened response from the Japan Coast Guard, China continues to pursue maritime control of the disputed islands.

A press release published by MOFA-Japan strongly protested the presence of the Chinese vessels.

"Following on from the series of activities by the Chinese military in the waters and airspace of the East China Sea in June, China is attempting to unilaterally change the status quo," Foreign Minister Kashida said in the statement. "It must be said that these activities are having a significant adverse impact on the status of Japan-China relations."

"The only way to settle this situation is for China to remove its vessels without delay and improve the situation on the ground in a clear and tangible manner," Kashida added. "I strongly demand an appropriate response from China."

Yet Chinese vessels continue maintain a consistent presence in the area, with violations officially noted by the U.S. Defense Department.

"The PRC continues to use maritime law enforcement ships and aircraft to patrol near the Japan administered Senkaku Islands," the Office of the Secretary of Defense wrote in its 2021 Annual Report to Congress. "In 2020, the PRC stepped up efforts to challenge Japan's control over the islands by increasing the duration and assertiveness of its patrols."

By June 4, 2021, Chinese ships had sailed in the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands for a record 112 consecutive days. The previous record was 111 consecutive days from April to August of 2020.

China sent seven Coast Guard ships in August 2021, four outfitted 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 filed 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 shadowed in the East China Sea, visibly harassed by Chinese vessels.

Nakama took to YouTube to expose the harassment he and other fishermen are experiencing at the hands of Chinese ships, his video surpassing 200,000 views.

"It's an attack," Nakama said. "Japan must defend itself."

China Ships Escalation Senkaku Island Intrusions
This graph published by Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs on November 29, 2021, shows China Coast Guard activity in the territorial sea and contiguous zone of the disputed Senkaku Islands—claimed by Beijing as the Diaoyu Islands—over the last decade. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan