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Chinese warship sailed near Senkakus despite two-hour MSDF warning

A Chinese navy ship sailed for the first time into a contiguous zone just outside Japanese territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture on June 9, in defiance of repeated warnings by a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) vessel in the area.

"If this goes on, your vessel will be entering our territory. What are you here for?" the MSDF vessel warned to the Chinese frigate in the predawn hours of June 9. In response, the Chinese vessel gave back similar warnings to the MSDF ship. The exchange between the two ships reportedly lasted over two hours.

The Japanese government had been aware of the Chinese vessel approaching the area since midnight of June 8, and demanded the Chinese government stop the vessel from approaching further by way of the Japanese Embassy in Beijing. However, Beijing didn't comply with Tokyo's request.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida then instructed Akitaka Saiki, vice-minister for foreign affairs, to summon Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua and to lodge a strong protest. Saiki called in the Chinese ambassador to the Foreign Ministry office at 2 a.m. on June 9.

Saiki questioned Ambassador Cheng, "Is your foreign ministry in contact with the military?" and told him, "We don't want your country to do anything that could raise tensions." While Cheng refused to comply with the protest, he said, "I will tell Beijing right away as I find it unfavorable to raise bilateral tensions."

The unusually late-night summoning was apparently aimed at showing Japan's seriousness about the situation and its readiness to respond swiftly to the Senkaku Island issue.

At the Japanese Defense Ministry, senior officials were closely watching the moves of the Chinese navy ship from late on June 8. If the vessel was to enter Japanese territorial waters, an order for maritime policing action -- in which the SDF exercises police authority in lieu of the Japan Coast Guard -- could be issued. "We were highly on edge," recalled a Defense Ministry source. When the Chinese vessel eventually changed its course and headed outside the contiguous zone, a sense of relief prevailed among ministry officials.

The Japanese government is poised to take a level-headed response to the issue in order to prevent the situation from escalating. Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of the SDF's Joint Staff, told a press conference on June 9, "We don't believe our current (warning and surveillance) system is insufficient." He suggested that Japan will continue the warning and surveillance activities under the current system to keep Chinese vessels in check near the Senkakus. The admiral also apparently believes excessive activities by MSDF vessels could give China a pretext to exercise further provocations.

While the purpose of the Chinese warship's entry into the contiguous zone remains unclear, the possibility of additional entries by Chinese vessels into the zone cannot be ruled out. When asked about the possibility of a Chinese military vessel ever intruding into Japanese territorial waters, Kawano said, "We want to avoid escalation to keep the situation from developing that way, but if that happens by any chance, we will respond accordingly" -- hinting at a swift response by MSDF ships upon an order for maritime policing action.

On June 4, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani revealed his intention to visit China during a brief conversation with a high-ranking Chinese military official in Singapore. Nakatani suggested that he would seek an early launch of a maritime and air liaison mechanism to prevent accidental military conflicts between Japanese and Chinese vessels and aircraft. However, the June 9 incident near the Senkakus could set the bar high for such a move between the two countries.

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