The first ever entry of a Chinese military vessel into the contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands, Okinawa Prefecture, in the predawn hours of June 9 was likely thoroughly planned, Japanese government sources said on June 10.
China also lays claim to the Senkaku Islands -- called the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese -- and Japanese government authorities believe the Chinese warship acted as though "monitoring" the Russian vessels, which had entered the contiguous zone just before. The foreign vessels were being tracked by two Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) patrol ships.
China has resorted to faits accomplis in the past to back their claim over the islands. The Japanese government believes that tensions in the East China Sea have reached a new level, and is moving to increased vigilance.
Whether or not the MSDF tracks a foreign vessel is based on careful assessment of the situation. According to a government source, the movements of Russian vessels navigating northward in the East China Sea on the night of June 8 were considered suspicious as they were not heading to Russia via the shortest route possible. This, combined with the fact that a Chinese Navy vessel was positioned to the north of the Senkakus, led to the Japanese government's decision to send the escort ship Hatakaze, which had been near the Russian ships, to track the other vessels.
Three Russian ships, including a destroyer, were returning to Russia from multilateral military drills in Southeast Asia. Under international law, military vessels are permitted to navigate through contiguous zones; Russian vessels have sailed through waters near the Senkaku Islands in the past.
At around 9:50 p.m. on June 8, the Russian vessels entered the contiguous zone from south of Kuba Island. As they travelled northward with Hatakaze not too far away, a Chinese vessel entered the zone from Kuba Island's northeast, as if it were meeting up with the Russian ships, with Japanese escort ship Setogiri tracking the Chinese ship. To avoid inciting the Chinese and Russian vessels, the Japanese ships stayed 2 to 3 kilometers from the ships they were tracking.
The Chinese frigate made a U-turn, and travelled northward alongside the Russian vessels until it exited the contiguous zone shortly after 3 a.m. This means that the Japanese, Chinese and Russian ships had all been navigating parallel to each other at one point.
"It doesn't seem as though (the Chinese ship) intended to intrude into Japanese territorial waters," a senior official at the Ministry of Defense said. Another ministry source also revealed that the Chinese frigate had kept its poise throughout, saying, "The Chinese vessel looked as though it was following the Russian ships."
If the MSDF ships had failed to track the Russian vessels in the contiguous zone, while the Chinese ship made a concerted effort to "monitor" the Russian ships, it would have created a precedent of China "protecting" the Senkaku Islands. The Defense Ministry source said that such a worst-case scenario was possible.
"It's possible that the latest incident was thoroughly planned, and more such actions will continue to take place in the future," former MSDF fleet commander Yoji Koda warned. Koda believes that China's intention is "to distract the international community from the tensions China has with other countries in the South China Sea and evade criticism."