Pentagon Warns China About 'Miscalculation' Over Actions in Japanese Waters

The Pentagon has urged Beijing to stop sending government vessels into Japanese waters, following more incursions by China's coast guard vessels near the Senkaku Islands over the weekend.

Beijing's continued deployment of ships near the islets controlled by Japan "could lead to miscalculation"—or physical and material harm, Department of Defense spokesperson John Kirby said Tuesday.

Two Chinese coast guard ships entered the territory waters of the uninhabited Senkakus on both Saturday and Sunday, said Japan's maritime authority. They marked nine such incursions reported this year.

The disputed islands in the East China Sea are also claimed by China and Taiwan, whose governments refer to them as "Diaoyu" and "Diaoyutai" respectively.

Beijing recently reasserted its claim that the islands were part of "China's inherent territory." Meanwhile, the frequent appearances of China Coast Guard vessels in or near the territorial waters of the Senkakus have raised additional alarm since China introduced its new coast guard law on February 1.

The law allows Chinese maritime police to expel foreign vessels in its country's waters, if necessary with the use of weapons. Beijing, however, has denied it plans to fire upon any foreign ships.

Incidents near the Senkakus, like the ones over the weekend, have led to standoffs between Chinese and Japanese vessels lasting several hours. China's government vessels have also been pursuing Japanese fishing boats operating near the islets, the Japan Coast Guard has reported.

Japan's maritime authority said an additional pair of China Coast Guard vessels were seen cruising just outside the territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands on Sunday.

One of them was armed with what appeared to be an "autocannon," the coast guard said. However, it was unclear whether the ship was identical to the one that intruded into Japanese waters last week.

Nations should be "free from coercion and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted rules and norms," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters during Tuesday's off-camera briefing.

He said the Chinese government, through its actions, was undermining the rules-based international order, one in which Beijing itself has benefited.

"We would urge the Chinese to avoid actions, using their Coast Guard vessels, that could lead to miscalculation and potential physical, if not—and material harm," Kirby said, according to a DoD read-out.

Japanese foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi welcomed the Pentagon's support, saying China's actions in the East China Sea were an area of shared concern between Tokyo and Washington.

Motegi called the Chinese coast guard intrusions "deplorable and totally unacceptable," according to Tokyo's Kyodo News. Japan would respond "calmly and resolutely" in cooperation with the U.S., he added.

A report Wednesday by Asahi Shimbun, a daily newspaper headquartered in Osaka, said lawmakers within Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party were calling for revisions to the country's maritime law which would allow for a stronger Japanese response.

Japan Coast Guard vessels are bound by strict regulations when it comes to the use of their weapons.

Japan's security concerns were on the agenda during President Joe Biden's call with his counterpart, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, in January. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was on the phone with foreign minister Motegi last month and again two weeks ago.

The United States stressed its defense commitments to Japan, including the Senkakus, during the series of high-level diplomatic calls, according to readouts issued by the White House and Department of State.

On Monday, the U.S. 7th Fleet announced the start of joint military drills with Japan which will continue through Friday.

All evidence points to China's coast guard activity continuing at pace, despite strong security assurances provided by the U.S. to Japan, said Paul Nantulya, who is with the Pentagon's Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

"China's record of past behavior shows that any perceived foreign engagement in support of territorial claimants like Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, and Brunei are met with a higher level of military engagements by China to include military maneuvers, forceful diplomacy, and even punitive economic measures," he told Newsweek in a written statement.

Nantulya, who is a research analyst specializing in the Chinese military and China-Africa relations, said the coast guard activity was part of a wider military strategy within the first island chain, which includes the Japanese archipelago in the north and extends south to the Malay Peninsula.

"These include the seaward approaches to China in the East and South China Seas and the Philippine Sea that include, crucially, Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands," he said.

He added: "The dynamic in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are slightly different but no less contentious. The increased maritime patrols by the [People's Liberation Army] and China Coast Guard into and around the vicinity of these waters—numbering [nine] since January—are aimed at enforcing Chinese claims and testing Japan's resolve and reactions."

Nantulya said China's new coast guard law was among the reasons Japanese leaders feared a "higher level of escalation" by Beijing which "could result in military clashes."

China Coast Guard Vessels Patrol Seas
File photo: China Coast Guard vessels patrol seas around China. China Coast Guard