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Long-Simmering Tensions Flare Over Disputed Senkaku Islands in East China Sea

FILE - Japanese Coast Guard vessel and boats, rear and right, sail alongside a Japanese activists' fishing boat, center with a flag, near a group of disputed islands called Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by Japan, Aug. 18, 2013.
FILE - Japanese Coast Guard vessel and boats, rear and right, sail alongside a Japanese activists' fishing boat, center with a flag, near a group of disputed islands called Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by Japan, Aug. 18, 2013.

Long-simmering tensions are flaring over the Senkaku Islands, an uninhabited archipelago located in the East China Sea known as Diaoyu by China and Diaoyutai by Taiwan.

Japan has claimed the islands since the Sino-Japanese War ended in 1895, but China and Taiwan claim them as well, making the rocky outcroppings a perpetual geopolitical flashpoint. There are economic as well as territorial interests involved, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, which says the islands "have potential oil and natural gas reserves, are near prominent shipping routes, and are surrounded by rich fishing areas.”

The latest face-off came Monday when two Chinese Coast Guard ships entered the contiguous zone adjacent to the 12 nautical miles of water around the islands that Japan views as its territory. A Russian frigate also entered the contiguous zone.

The contiguous zone is generally defined as extending an additional 12 nautical miles beyond the territorial waters, laid out by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in accordance with international law.

Although nations are not afforded the same degree of exclusivity and control in the contiguous zone as international law grants them in the 12 nautical miles of territorial waters, Tokyo lodged a protest with Beijing that day, according to Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara.

“According to history and international law, the Senkaku Islands are an inherent part of Japan's territory,” Kihara said. “The government will handle this matter calmly and firmly to protect Japan's land, territorial waters and airspace, but Chinese and Russian warships have not violated Japan's territorial waters.”

At a Tuesday press conference, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said that although the Russian ship may have been avoiding Typhoon Aere, two Chinese coast guard vessels also approached the Senkaku Islands and tracked a Japanese fishing boat.

But experts suggested that China and Russia likely planned to enter the area—approximately 186 kilometers from Taiwan and around 410 kilometers from Japan—in a coordinated action to protest the U.S.-Japan alliance.

"China and Russia have continued to put pressure on Japan because Japan is the most important ally of the United States in Asia,” Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international politics at Fukui Prefectural University in Japan, told VOA Mandarin.

The Japanese Defense Ministry stated that at 7 a.m. on July 4, a Russian frigate entered the waters near the Senkaku Islands and sailed in the area for more than an hour.

Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands
Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

“The Russian warship sailing in the waters of the Senkaku Islands is helping China’s plan, allowing Chinese warships to directly enter the adjacent waters [as a] 'warning,' creating the perception that China has the right to 'substantially rule' the Senkaku Islands,” Shimada told VOA Mandarin. “So, it is highly likely that has been prepared beforehand.”

Moscow and Beijing have appeared to coordinate actions in the area in the past. On May 24, Chinese and Russian fighter jets carried out joint flights over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea as leaders from the United States, India, Australia, and Japan held talks in Tokyo on regional security.

According to the website USNINews, a seven-ship Russian surface group has been operating near Japan since June 15.

On Tuesday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said the Diaoyu Islands have always been China’s territory.

“In recent years, right-wing Japanese fishing boats have repeatedly entered China’s territorial waters off Diaoyu Dao [Island] illegally,” Zhao Lijian said at a regular press briefing. “This has seriously violated China’s sovereignty. The on-site law enforcement activities of Chinese coast guard vessels with regard to the right-wing Japanese fishing boats were a lawful and legitimate measure to protect China’s sovereignty.”

Beijing has not commented on the movements of Russian warships near the Senkaku Islands.

Japan’s Kyodo News on Tuesday reported that Chinese vessels have now been spotted near the islands, including in the contiguous zone outside Japanese waters, for 81 days in a row, according to the Japanese Coast Guard.

Chen Wenjia, director of the National and Regional Development Research Center at Kainan University in Taiwan, said the purpose of China and Russia’s actions in the Senkaku Islands is to declare to the U.S.-Japan alliance — and the West more broadly — that Russia still has resources to cooperate with China’s maritime strategy in Northeast Asia despite its war in Ukraine.

Chen believes that the entry of Chinese and Russian warships into the Senkakus was intended to intimidate Japan while making a statement against the U.S.-Japan alliance.

“Such actions are enough to show that China and Russia will abide by the Sino-Russian strategy when faced with major national security issues,” Chen told VOA Mandarin. “Under the framework of cooperation, as long as China launches a war in the Taiwan Strait or the East China Sea, Russia will definitely support China in the war."

Japan’s Kyodo News reported that Tokyo told Moscow it is monitoring developments around the Senkakus.

Japan did not issue a formal protest to Russia given that Moscow does not lay claim to the islands and due to the possibility that the Russian frigate may have entered the contiguous zone to escape a typhoon, a Foreign Ministry source told Kyodo.

Japan and Russia have a separate longstanding territorial dispute over the four southernmost islands of the Kuril chain, which are located off the northern coast of the Japanese island of Hokkaido, far from the East China Sea.