Japan has reacted angrily after a Chinese government vessel was detected apparently conducting an underwater survey without permission within Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off Okinawa in the nation’s southwest, the latest provocative maritime action by Beijing.
The nation’s coastguard identified the vessel, the Dong Fang Hong 3, operating in an area 73km north of the inhabited island of Ishigaki shortly after midday on Saturday.
The Chinese ship was around 90km south of the uninhabited Diaoyu Islands, about 400km west from Okinawa, which Japan controls and calls the Senkakus. However, China claims sovereignty over them.
Analysts say the incident is the latest in a series of apparent tests designed to gauge Japanese reactions. In March, a Chinese ship was spotted carrying out a similar maritime survey within Japan’s EEZ off Kume Island, which is around 100km west of Okinawa’s main island.
The Japanese coastguard reported that Saturday’s vessel had deployed cables off its stern and appeared to be conducting research. The service then instructed the Chinese ship to halt its activities but the request was ignored.
Japan’s Foreign Ministry has lodged an official complaint with Beijing, with a statement on the ministry website emphasising that it is “extremely regrettable” that the Chinese ship was carrying out scientific research within Japan’s EEZ without telling Tokyo or seeking Japan’s consent.
The Self-Defence Forces were deployed in September last year to shadow a Chinese destroyer operating within Japan’s EEZ but just outside the nation’s territorial waters, which extend to 12 nautical miles from shore.
According to international law, territorial waters are areas of the sea near a nation’s shores and subject to the territorial jurisdiction of that nation.
Legally, an exclusive economic zone is an ocean area in which a state has special rights in terms of exploration and the use of resources, including energy production from wind and water as well as fishing and drilling.
The Chinese warship seen in September is believed to have been accompanying a submerged submarine just off Amami Oshima island in southern Japan.
Last month, Japan protested through diplomatic channels after determining that China has unilaterally started construction of what appears to be a drilling rig to develop a gas field in disputed waters in the East China Sea .
The two nations reached a broad agreement in 2008 to jointly develop natural resources in the area, where their territorial claims overlap, but the discussions were deadlocked over the details, including the limits of the two sides’ EEZs, and was never put into operation.
Japanese media reported recently that 17 Chinese drilling rigs are in position close to the geographical median point between the two nations, although the actual border remains in dispute.
And while it may not be a breach of maritime law to carry out underwater surveys in another nation’s EEZ, analysts say, it is generally accepted that the surveying country notifies and seeks the permission of the government that controls the waters before beginning.
“China is not breaking the letter of the law and this (the latest vessel) is not as serious as Chinese government ships entering Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus, which Tokyo considers to be a violation of its sovereignty,” said Robert Dujarric, co-director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.
But it is also not the act of a “friendly neighbour”, he said.
Analysts say it is unlikely that the Chinese ship was looking for energy deposits or other natural resources below the seabed.
A far more likely explanation is that China was trying to work out the depth of the area’s waters and identify deepwater passages that Chinese submarines are able to exploit to sortie into the Pacific from the shallower coastal waters of the East China Sea, where they are more vulnerable to detection.
The Chinese government would also be interested in identifying any submarine communications cables that could be tapped or, in the event of a conflict, destroyed.
Yet the Chinese actions are arguably a double-edged sword, said Dujarric.
When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite in October 1957, the administration of US President Dwight D Eisenhower did not protest that it flew over US territory.
Instead, it used Sputnik to establish the principle that a satellite does not violate a nation’s territorial airspace. As a result, the US was able to fly spy satellites over the Soviet Union.
“It’s the same situation here,” Dujarric said. “The more China decides it can operate in other countries’ EEZs, the more the US, Australia or even Japan can do the same. This arguably supports the freedom of navigation passages by other nations’ warships that have so upset the Chinese in places like the South China Sea or off Taiwan.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.