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Senkaku Islands Survey: Tensions in the Surrounding Waters

Two China Coast Guard ships aggressively harassed an Ishigaki City environmental survey of the Senkaku Islands (Okinawa), disrupting its conservation efforts.



Two Japan Coast Guard patrol boats (in front) perfectly block a Chinese Coast Guard ship (center back) off the coast of Uotsuri Island in the Senkaku Islands, on the morning of April 27. In Ishigaki City, Okinawa Prefecture @Sankei by Naoki Otake)

Ishigaki City, Okinawa Prefecture, conducted a marine survey of the Senkaku Islands between April 25 and April 27. Its findings indicate that the islands' unique ecosystem, a sanctuary for diverse flora and fauna, is declining. The mountainsides have eroded due to goat grazing, leaving the bare red soil exposed. Along the coastline, debris from various sources has accumulated. 

An Ishigaki City marine research vessel departs for the Senkaku Islands on the afternoon of April 25. (© Sankei by Naoki Otake)

While further on-site investigations are necessary, tensions have escalated at sea. Japan Coast Guard patrol boats and Chinese Coast Guard vessels are currently locked in a standoff. With growing concerns over rising tensions with China, the Japanese government has prohibited landings. Reporters accompanying the survey team observed the grim reality firsthand.

Chinese Coast Guard Ships with Electronic Message Boards

Dawn arrives late at the Senkaku Islands, located near the western edge of the Japanese archipelago. At 5:45 AM on April 27, the eastern sky was just starting to lighten as I stepped onto the survey ship's deck.

Two silhouettes of ships appeared on the distant horizon. According to the crew, the vessel with green lights was a Japan Coast Guard patrol boat. The ship with red lights belongs to the China Coast Guard. It was identifiable by the color of the characters on its electronic display boards.

Messages in Japanese and Chinese also appeared on the Chinese vessels' display boards. They urged vessels to depart from the territorial waters. According to the 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters in Naha, two China Coast Guard ships entered the waters around the Senkaku Islands at 5:15 AM. It seems they were anticipating the research vessel, which departed Ishigaki Port the previous day at 10 PM.

Broadcasting in Faltering Japanese

Faltering Japanese radio chatter filled the air on the bridge of the research vessel. It was a communication from a China Coast Guard ship. "The Diaoyu Islands (the Chinese Communist Party's name for the Senkaku Islands) and their affiliated islets have long been recognized as China's sovereign territory," it said. Then it added, "Their surrounding 12 nautical miles constitute China's territorial waters."

In response, the Japan Coast Guard patrol vessel issued a firm warning: "Your vessel's navigation in our territorial waters cannot be considered innocent passage. Do not intrude into Japan's territorial waters."

However, the China Coast Guard vessel remained obstinate, responding, "Japan Coast Guard, your claims cannot be accepted." More than ten patrol vessels were dispatched to surround the China Coast Guard ships, obstructing their path forward. Meanwhile, the two Chinese ships issuing communications refused to leave Japanese territorial waters.

Researchers used a drone to investigate the north side of Uotsuri Island, Ishigaki City, Okinawa on the morning of April 27. (© Sankei by Naoki Otake)

Obstacles to Conducting Landing Surveys

At 7:40 AM, about 2km offshore from Uotsuri Island, the Japanese team launched a drone from the research vessel's deck. Researchers directed the thermal infrared sensor-equipped drone towards the island.

This survey marked the first successful imaging of the island's northern side. Additionally, the team also confirmed heat sources, which are likely goats. Tokai University's Professor Yoshihiko Yamada (Department of Maritime Civilizations) was part of the city-commissioned survey team. "Goat grazing could result in soil erosion, posing concerns for the surrounding marine ecosystem," he explained. "Conducting thorough surveys is crucial to tackling this issue."


Yamada revealed that landslides, likely caused by goats grazing near the coast, are occurring. Rivers have also decreased in number, as have their flow rates. The researchers further confirmed that a significant amount of marine debris had accumulated. It had crossed maritime boundaries and washed ashore primarily on the island's north side. A worrying development, it raises concerns about the impact on the ecosystem and surrounding waters.

A monitor displays footage captured by a drone on the morning of April 27. It shows the condition of the Senkaku Islands, particularly Uotsuri Island, and the erosion progressing near the coast. Ishigaki City, Okinawa Prefecture (© Sankei by Naoki Otake)

Okinawa's Responsibility

The purpose of this investigation was to collect essential scientific data for future landing surveys aimed at environmental conservation. Ishigaki City Mayor Yoshitaka Nakayama, who joined the survey, noted, "Using drones for surveys has limitations." 

"These islands fall within the prefectural administrative area [of Okinawa], Nakayama emphasized. We urge the prefecture to support requests to the national government for conducting landing surveys." 

However, Okinawa Prefecture maintains that the national government should handle issues such as foreign relations and security. Despite this, Governor Denny Tamaki visited China in July 2023 and directly met with Premier Li Qiang. He said he did not discuss the Senkaku Islands at all during this exchange.

Brazen Chinese Intrusion

As the morning sun rose on April 27, the Senkaku Islands emerged distinctly against the deep blue ocean. Under the morning light, China Coast Guard ships were closing in, clearly visible from a distance.

In 2018, China's Central Military Commission incorporated the China Coast Guard into the Chinese Communist Party's Armed Police Force. That transformed it into a quasi-military entity. As such, China claims its ships have the authority to order foreign vessels deemed a threat to Chinese territorial waters to depart. Moreover, China has given its coast guard the authority to pursue and track those other ships.

The aggression toward Japanese research vessels around the Senkaku Islands may be China's attempt to assert sovereignty over them. Stationing China Coast Guard ships there may also aim to present Chinese control as an indisputable fact.

Near the Senkaku Islands, one can easily spot repurposed ships, like Chinese Navy frigates, that have been repainted. Tomomi Inada, a former Defense Minister who participated in the investigation, expressed her frustration. "It is unacceptable for [China] Coast Guard ships to enter our territorial waters so brazenly," she stated.

Senkaku Islands Patrols Intensify

The number of large China Coast Guard ships has been expanding rapidly. Since 2016 it has more than doubled the number of large patrol vessels, compared to the Japan Coast Guard. 

A Japan Coast Guard patrol vessel closely shadows a China Coast Guard ship (right), maintaining tight surveillance and protecting the Japanese research vessel off the Senkaku Islands, Ishigaki City in Okinawa. April 27, 2024, at 8:29 AM (© Sankei by Naoki Otake)

However, the Japan Coast Guard has consistently maintained a more substantial presence in the waters around the Senkaku Islands than the Chinese vessels. In addition to high-speed Japan Coast Guard patrol ships armed with 40mm guns, it also employs small, highly maneuverable high-speed patrol boats.

As China's Haijing 2502 patrol vessel appears before them, the research team instinctively tensed up. "Probably about half a mile away," murmured a crew member on the bridge of the research vessel. The distance between the research vessel and the coast guard ship was about one kilometer. Prioritizing safety, they decided to cancel the second drone survey.

However, the research vessel's navigation proceeded smoothly and without any problems. Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels Kabira and Motobu closely followed the giant China Coast Guard ship, blocking its path to prevent it from getting near the research vessel. That ensured the research vessel's protection.

From Wilderness to Frontline

Before the war, Uotsuri Island was home to Japanese bonito processing plants and other facilities. However, around 1940, it became an uninhabited island, lapsing back into wilderness. 

Signs of change began to surface in 1968, over two decades after the war's end. A United Nations report hinted at the possible existence of underground resources in the surrounding seabed. This revelation prompted China and Taiwan to begin claiming sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in 1971.

The presence of Chinese government ships has become commonplace since the nationalization of the Senkaku Islands in September 2010. Repeated intrusions have turned the once-rich fishing grounds, known as the "Sea of Treasures," into the frontline of border security. Here, Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels now confront encroaching China Coast Guard ships.

At around 8:30 AM, the research vessel departed Uotsuri Island and set course for Ishigaki Port. On the return journey, a China Coast Guard ship trailed it for over three hours. Is this what China considers "law enforcement"? Its relentless pursuit was quite unforgettable.

Meio University Faculty of International Studies Associate Professor Junjiro Shida, an expert in foreign affairs, suggested China might try similar actions during future landing surveys. He stressed the need for full government support. "The government, Ishigaki City, and the entire nation must unite to address this," he declared.


Read the report in Japanese here. 

Author: Naoki Otake, staff writer, The Sankei Shimbun