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Politics & Security

China, Russia Intensify Naval Operations Around Japanese Archipelago

Coordinating operations, circling Japan and entering contiguous waters, warships of the Chinese and Russian navies are testing Japan’s defenses.

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The Senkaku Islands, Ishigaki City, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan.

Recently, Chinese and Russian naval warships have been sailing successively around the Japanese archipelago. 

The Ministry of Defense announced on July 4 that a Chinese navy frigate, followed by a Russian navy frigate, each entered the waters of Japan’s contiguous zone (within 24 nautical miles) around the Senkaku Islands, Ishigaki City, in Okinawa Prefecture. There was no invasion of territorial waters. It was the first time since June 2016 that Chinese and Russian ships have entered the contiguous zone of the archipelago at about the same time.

Earlier in mid-June, a Chinese flotilla of four ships sailed north through the Tsushima Strait in southwestern Japan and into the Sea of Japan, then split into two parts before transiting into the Pacific Ocean, where they came together and sailed south again. 

At roughly the same time, five Russian naval vessels sailed south from waters off Hokkaido along the Pacific side of Japan into the East China Sea, and from there north into the Sea of Japan. 

Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) has been closely monitoring both fleets, given the appearance of coordinated Chinese and Russian naval operations targeted at holding Japanese and United States defenses in check.

Graphic movement of Chinese, Russian naval fleets (© Sankei Shimbun/JAPAN Forward)

China’s Naval Activities in Mid-June

Around 3 AM on June 21, the JMSDF confirmed, two Chinese navy missile destroyers and one navy replenishment ship were sighted sailing westward in waters off of the Izu Islands, a group of volcanic islands under the administration of Tokyo. 

Earlier on June 12-13, the three ships along with a Chinese naval intelligence ship had moved north through the Tsushima Strait (on the western side of Kyushu), according to JMSDF. The four ships split into  two groups in the Sea of Japan, with the destroyers moving north and passing through to the Pacific via the Soya Strait at the northernmost point in Hokkaido, on June 16 to 17. Meanwhile, the Chinese spy ship and naval replenishment vessel sailed into the Pacific through the narrow Tsugaru Strait separating Japan’s main island from Hokkaido on June 16. 

From there, the three Chinese naval vessels minus the intelligence ship proceeded south along a route about 220 kilometers east of Kinkazan Island, Miyagi Prefecture, JMSDF said.

Chinese Navy missile destroyer sailing southward along the Pacific side of the Japanese archipelago on June 20, 2022 (provided by the Joint Staff Office of the Ministry of Defense)

Russia’s Naval Movements in Mid-June

Meanwhile, the Russian navy’s five-vessel fleet consisting of three frigates, a destroyer and the Russian navy missile range instrumentation ship Marshal Krylov were spotted sailing in waters about 280 kilometers southeast of Cape Erimo, Hokkaido, on June 15. The warships then headed southwest to about 180 kilometers off Cape Inubosaki, Chiba Prefecture, on June 16 and 17, before sailing southwest through waters near the Izu Islands.

The Russian ships later sailed through the Miyako Strait between the main island of Okinawa and Miyako Island, traversing the East China Sea and entering the Sea of Japan on June 21. Two other Russian warships also joined the group near the Izu Islands, bringing the fleet to seven ships, according to JMSDF officials.

Both the Chinese and Russian fleets moved deliberately, operating to orbit around the Japanese archipelago, Japanese officials noted. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told a news conference on June 21 the government “will continue to closely monitor Chinese and Russian naval vessels operating in the vicinity of Japan, and take all possible precautions while making our utmost efforts in surveillance of their activities.”    

Russian Navy frigate that passed through the Miyako Strait, between the main island of Okinawa and Miyakojima, on June 19, 2022 (provided by the Joint Staff Office of the Ministry of Defense)

China and Russia Demonstrating Against Japan

A total of 10 Chinese and Russian warships took part in a joint action making a clockwise circle around the Japanese archipelago in October 2021, signaling the two countries’ naval collaboration. During that operation, ship-based helicopters on a Chinese missile destroyer also engaged in takeoff and landing practice. 

Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that the Russian Navy had carried out joint patrol exercises with the Chinese Navy for a period of seven days during the joint operation. Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi expressed strong concern over the operation, stating they were “intended to be a demonstration against Japan.”

This time in June and July, 2022, the Chinese and Russian ships were moving separately but at roughly the same time as each other, with the warships of both traveling for long distances. This pattern of behavior has raised suspicions that Beijing and Moscow were possibly acting in even closer military collaboration. 

Japan’s Defense Ministry says that given these trends it is becoming more cautious about the real aim of China and Russia, and is closely monitoring their latest actions. 

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(Read the related articles in Japanese here and here.)

Author: Toyohiro Ichioka

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