Chinese Boat Swarm Crosses Into Japanese Waters

Published Aug 16, 2016 9:29 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Japan Coast Guard released new video Monday showing a large number of Chinese fishing vessels in waters near the Japanese-occupied Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by China. The move is the largest maritime challenge yet to Japanese claims in the Senkaku chain. 

The video, disseminated online by Japan Times, shows dozens of fishing boats in visual range of the islands, consistent with reports of a fleet of 200-300 Chinese fishing vessels and Chinese Coast Guard patrol ships just outside of Japanese waters. The "swarm" of Chinese boats has been in place for 10 days.

Japan Coast Guard says that the video shows its vessels patrolling the boundary line and warning the Chinese ships to stay out. The agency also claims that on 28 occasions, Chinese Coast Guard vessels crossed over the boundary line, in addition to 72 instances involving fishing boats. The agency said that its patrol vessels informed the Chinese ships that "non-innocent passage in the Japanese is not allowed. Get out of this area immediately."

Innocent passage refers to the right of a foreign-flagged vessel to transit a nation's territorial seas for benign purposes, without prior notification. A non-innocent passage – typically a military exercise intended to assert "high seas freedoms" in the area, and larger in scope than just a transit – would be a direct challenge to a nation's sovereign claim to territorial seas. 

Elements of the Chinese fishing fleet are widely considered to be government-funded paramilitary forces; Japan Coast Guard asserted that some of the Chinese Coast Guard vessels bore armaments. 

The Japanese government announced Monday that it will be deploying a new anti-ship missile system within range of the Senkaku chain by 2023. The missile is still under development, but it will have a range of nearly 200 miles, giving coverage of the Senkakus from bases on Yonaguni Island and Miyako Island. Japan has also recently completed commissioning of a new long-range surveillance radar on Yonaguni, and in February it added a new air wing of F-15J fighters out of Okinawa to take on the growing workload of intercepting Chinese military aircraft. Japanese fighters scramble hundreds of times a year to meet approaching Chinese planes in the East China Sea.