Japan Coast Guard Expands Presence to Meet New Threats


Published Jan 16, 2018 8:37 AM by The Maritime Executive

In response to recent incursions, the Japan Coast Guard is preparing for more interaction with Chinese forces off the Senkaku Islands, a disputed chain near Taiwan. China's coast guard and its fishing fleet regularly enter the territorial seas in the vicinity of the Japanese-occupied islands. 

To support its response to the Chinese presence, the Japan Coast Guard is preparing to build up to four new bases to support its operations. According to Japan Times, the service is looking at new sites at Tsuruga, Kagoshima, Ishigaki and Miyako, with construction to start in the first half of 2019. The Ishigaki site would be about 110 nm to the south of the Senkakus, making it the closest of the four. 

The presence of Chinese warships near the island is rare, but Chinese government vessels make regular appearances. On Monday, three China Coast Guard vessels entered Japan's territorial seas off the Senkakus, a follow-on to a visit last week by another group of four ships.

Another recent Chinese patrol into waters near the Senkakus may be more concerning for Japan's government. Last Thursday, the Japanese ministry of defense said that a Chinese frigate and a submarine were detected just outside of Japan's territorial seas. They remained outside the 12-mile line but inside the 12-to-24-mile contiguous zone. Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force repeatedly asked the vessels to depart the area, but they continued their patrol.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said on Monday that the warships' actions were "unacceptable" in light of the repeated warnings. “We are seriously concerned over acts that unilaterally raise tensions. We’ll keep our guard up to respond swiftly if a similar incident happens,” he told reporters at a news briefing. Japanese officials have identified the submarine as a Shang-class Type 093 attack submarine, a fast-moving nuclear-powered vessel that is equipped to carry cruise missiles. 

North Korean presence

Half of the new Japan Coast Guard bases are in the East China Sea, but the Tsuruga site is on the main island of Honshu, and would be well-placed to respond to the increasing number of North Korean fishing vessels that encroach on Japanese waters in the Sea of Japan. 

Analysts suggest that as the effects of sanctions on North Korea set in, the nation's poorly-equipped wooden fishing boats are heading further out onto the high seas to fill their catch quotas. Prof. Hideshi Takesada of Takushoku University recently told Japan Times that these fishermen may also be further out because North Korea has sold the fishing rights to its own waters to Chinese firms.

As their numbers increase in the Sea of Japan and in the Japanese EEZ, large number of North Korean fishing boats are washing up on shore as "ghost ships," either abandoned or containing fishermen who died at sea. 104 of these vessels found their way onto Japanese coasts last year, with the majority discovered in November and December. The high rate of casualties may result from a combination of engine failure, limited navigational equipment, lack of communications and foul weather. 

In addition to concerns over poaching in the Japanese EEZ and the loss of life amongst North Korean fishermen, some Japanese analysts warn that these vessels could be used as a cover for North Korean covert operations. Many North Korean boats have been found with survivors in recent months, a change from years past, and some observers caution that the boats' occupants could be spies. Tetsuro Fukuyama, head of Japan's Constitutional Democratic Party, recently raised the possibility that they might pose a threat. "What about the risk of these people, if they are special agents, making a landing just when some military operation is going on?" he wondered.