China has been steadily escalating its pressure tactics against a key U.S. ally in Asia by deploying armed government vessels to a disputed island group on a near-daily basis. The Senkaku Islands, administered by Japan but claimed by Beijing and Taipei to a lesser extent, have become a hotbed of contention between the two nations.
Positioned roughly 120 miles northeast of Taiwan and 200 miles southwest of Japan’s Okinawa prefecture, the Senkakus comprise five uninhabited islets and three barren rocks. Since Japan took ownership of the islands in 2012, China’s assertiveness has grown, evident in the deployment of unprecedented numbers of large ships equipped with autocannons to assert its control.
Chinese coast guard spokesperson Gan You mentioned that Chinese ships had implemented “necessary measures” to remove Japanese boats from the waters around the Senkakus. Ongoing confrontations between the two nations have become a frequent incident in the East China Sea, reflecting their prolonged struggle for dominance over these seemingly inconspicuous features that carry the potential to secure China’s unrestricted access to the vast Pacific waters.
The United States, remaining neutral on the issue of sovereignty over the Senkakus, acknowledges Japan’s administration of the islands. Under the U.S.-Japan security treaty, protection has been extended to Japanese government assets in the vicinity of the islets since 2014.
According to data released by Japan’s Foreign Ministry, Chinese coast guard ships have been conducting frequent operations in the disputed waters surrounding the Senkakus. The count of Chinese vessels within the island group’s 12-nautical mile territorial sea varied from 4 to 16 during the initial 11 months of 2023. However, the number of ships approaching the 24-nautical mile contiguous zone has often exceeded dozens and, on occasion, surpassed 110.
Although confrontations between Japan’s coast guard and the heavily armed Chinese counterparts have not reached the intensity observed in the South China Sea, any armed assault on Japan’s government vessels is likely to prompt military intervention from the United States. Additionally, the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty would be invoked if Philippine troops were subjected to an attack.
The growing assertiveness of China in the East China Sea has its roots in 2008 when two ships from China’s State Oceanic Administration entered Japan’s territorial waters near the Senkakus. These actions signaled the commencement of China’s defiance of the established order, and subsequent events, such as the collision between a Chinese fishing vessel and Japanese Coast Guard ships in 2010, escalated tensions. The Japanese government’s acquisition of ownership of three of the islets in 2012 further intensified Chinese Coast Guard operations in the region.
The enactment of China’s new Coast Guard Law in February 2021, which authorizes the use of weapons, raised international concerns.