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Japan Must Show Allies It Can Tackle China’s Illegal Fishing More Firmly

Japan’s indecisiveness toward China’s aggressions has also led its neighbor countries to harden their stance against Japanese territory and interests.

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A flotilla of Chinese maritime militia "fishing" vessels aggressively entering waters near Senkaku Islands (September 2020)

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This summer, as Japan was trying to make a success of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games and COVID-19 countermeasures, its ambitious neighbors invaded Japanese territory and waters, making threats against our sovereignty.

However, the Japanese government played down this fact. It also failed to convey the sense of crisis to the people of Japan.

Right now, the government of this maritime nation, Japan, must prioritize the implementation of its maritime security measures.

The world’s oceans are all connected. If one country abandons its duty to protect the international order of the seas, safety of navigation in that region is no longer guaranteed. That makes it difficult to protect local fishery resources and preserve the marine environment. This can later be the cause of conflict.

In reality, the Japanese government does not clearly demonstrate its will to protect its territorial waters, resulting in its aggressive neighbors expanding their encroachment into Japan’s seas.

The consequence is that fishing activity by Japanese fishermen in the region is under threat, and even the survey of seabed resources and the marine environment become more difficult.

If Japan fails to protect its sovereignty, it will lose the trust of the international community, including its allies.

Chinese Maritime Aggression

China’s maritime aggressiveness threatens the peace of the Japanese islands. Yet, government-issued documents, such as the Defense of Japan 2021 white paper and Japan’s diplomatic bluebook, fail to state outright that China is a threat.

In 2018, the China Coast Guard was placed under the command of the Central Military Commission, and in February 2021 it was allowed to fire its weapons at foreign vessels under a new law.

RELATED: Japan Officially Calls Out China on Law Allowing Use of Lethal Force on Foreign Vessels

These changes pose a threat to Japan’s maritime security system, and are a warning to the United States, which supports Taiwan.

It is obvious that China is aiming to ravage the Senkaku Islands (Ishigaki City, Okinawa Prefecture). This is because it will be essential for China to control the Senkaku Islands as a hub in order to capture Taiwan.

RELATED: In Our Region: A Taiwan Contingency is a Japan Contingency

The Japanese government has a duty to tell the people of Japan about China’s threat in an accurate manner, and pursue a strategy to deter it before an emergency happens. The Japan Coast Guard is doing its best to protect the Senkaku Islands, but the China Coast Guard continues to grow and is more heavily armed, giving it the edge in terms of size and capability.

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East China Sea

The Japan Coast Guard has been unable to stop the China Coast Guard’s incursions into Japanese territory. Japan needs to shift away from its dependence on the Japan Coast Guard.

In this author’s view, the most effective strategy would be for Japan and its ally, the United States, to disclose their defense capability in the East China Sea.

Japan could show its determination to maintain security in East Asia, by conducting joint training sessions with the U.S. in the Senkaku Islands for example. This would have a deterrent effect toward China, and would contribute toward peace in Asia.

China now insists that the Senkaku Islands are Chinese territory, and that the area up to the Okinawa Trough is under Chinese jurisdiction.

The Japanese government, which wants to avoid confrontation with China, has signed a fishery agreement with its neighbor, and recognizes Chinese fishing rights. Taking advantage of this, China has launched more than 10,000 fishing boats in the East China Sea, raising the danger that China could exhaust the supply of fish. 

Fishermen along the Kyushu coast are fearful of Chinese fishing fleets. As a result, many in the region have given up fishing, culminating in the decline of the local industry.

In Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off the coast of Kumejima, in Okinawa Prefecture, there are hydrothermal deposits rich in copper. However, China has already started surveying the seabed and collecting mineral resources there. All of this essentially means that China has robbed Japan of the East China Sea.

In the Yamatotai area of the Sea of Japan, continuing from 2020, more than 1,000 large Chinese fishing boats have continued poaching in the area. Japan’s fisheries agency, which has been at a loss on how to respond, simply requested restraint or the cessation of fishing 29 times during a two-month period from June 12, 2021. Yet, the illegal fishing by Chinese vessels did not stop, while Japanese fishermen were asked to refrain from fishing.

The period of restraints on Japanese fishermen spread across two consecutive years has forced some to go out of business. By failing to tackle the illegal operations of Chinese fishing fleets, while restricting Japanese fishermen, the agency has got its priorities wrong. 

RELATED: Okinawa Fisherman Takes to YouTube to Show Chinese Encroachment on the Senkakus

Strategic Dissemination of Factual Information

As Japan hosted the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, an event that celebrates peace, Chinese military aircraft entered Japan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, forcing JASDF to scramble in response. Chinese aggression seems to have no limits.

Similarly, in early July 2021, Russia warned that it would conduct missile launch drills in the Yamatotai area of Japan’s EEZ in the Sea of Japan.

Then, on July 26, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin visited Etorofu in the Northern Territories. The Putin administration has recently taken a hard line, adding a clause to Russia’s Constitution that bans territorial concessions, which has made resolution of the Northern Territories issue even more difficult than before.

Not to be left out, South Korea stressed during the Tokyo Games that Takeshima is part of its country, and, on August 15, a South Korean politician visited the island. Japan’s lack of policy on Takeshima has resulted in overfishing of fish, crab, and squid in those waters by South Korea, North Korea, and Chinese fishermen.

Indecisiveness toward China’s aggressions has led Russia, South Korea, and North Korea to harden their stance as well against Japanese territory and interests.

The Japanese government must make its citizens aware of this chaotic international situation and awaken them from the pretense that everything is completely peaceful.

Furthermore, in order to gain other countries’ understanding of Japan’s defense and diplomatic strategy, the country needs to share strategic information about the security issues it faces in the region.

In particular, Japan’s National Security Agency should collect information, improve their communication skills, and gain an advantage over China’s public opinion campaign.

Disseminating accurate information on Japan’s territorial waters is as powerful a tool as a nuclear weapon.

(Find access to the Sankei Shimbun report in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Yoshihiko Yamada

Yoshihiko Yamada is a director of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and a professor at Tokai University. He is specialized in maritime issues.