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Tokyo sent a humiliating public protest to Beijing over the intrusion of a vast Chinese “fishing fleet” escorted by more than a dozen coast guards and other law enforcement vessels in or near the sea. waters of the disputed Senkaku Islands.

Such protests are common in the ongoing cat-and-mouse game in the East and South China Seas, but they are usually delivered in private. In this case, Tokyo has decided to turn its protest into a political theater.

Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua was summoned to the Foreign Ministry, where press and television cameras were waiting to film the meeting. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida made Cheng wait for ten minutes and then entered, a stern look on his face, gesturing for him to sit down.

“Relations with China are deteriorating significantly[e] because China is trying to change the status quo, ”Kishida lectured Cheng, who looked embarrassed by the media presence. He said the Diaoyu, as China calls them, were Chinese territory and the two nations should “strive for a solution.”

A boarding party from the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) | U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Manda M. Emery

Japan has become accustomed to Chinese Coast Guard intrusions into its claimed territorial waters. On average once every two weeks, two or three Chinese ships slip into the waters of Senkaku. They stay a few hours and then leave.

But there had been nothing quite like what happened on August 8 when a flotilla of more than 230 “fishing boats” escorted by up to 28 Chinese Coast Guard and other vessels of the forces order practically surrounded the Senkaku Islands for several days.

It was not immediately clear what message the Chinese were trying to get across, although Tokyo strongly supported the Philippines in its lawsuit against China, which resulted in the July 11 ruling which upheld all the Manila charges.

Was the last intrusion a dress rehearsal for the war?

The different war scenarios in the East China Sea, and possibly the South China Sea, generally fall into two main categories. There is the “accidental” combat scenario. A Chinese destroyer’s radar locks onto a Japanese warship. The Japanese captain retaliates in self-defense and the incident spirals out of control.

It’s a scenario. Another scenario, perhaps more realistic, is the “swarm” scenario: several hundred “fishing boats” leave the ports of Zhejiang province for Senkaku, where they overwhelm the Japanese coast guard in numbers.

This time, the fishing boats unload some 200 commandos disguised as fishermen or “colonists”. The Senkaku are not garrisoned by Japanese troops, so no shots are fired. The Chinese side says it does not use force, but simply takes possession of what it claims to be its sovereign territory.

Tokyo feels compelled to respond, although the Chinese landing force is too large to be dislodged by ordinary police methods, such as those used in the past when a handful of activists – Chinese and Japanese – attempted. to land on the disputed islands and to plant there. their flags.

This would put Japan in the position of being the first party to fire gunfire, possibly landing elements of the Western Infantry Regiment, which was created and trained specifically to reclaim the islands. Meanwhile, Tokyo is hastily consulting Washington for assurances that it will honor its commitments to defend Japan.

On more than one occasion, including in remarks by President Barack Obama himself, the United States has declared that the Senkaku fall under the provisions of the Common Security Treaty since they are administered by Japan.

In the most recent incident, the approximately 230 Chinese fishing vessels escorted by Chinese law enforcement vessels made no effort to disembark anyone, although the Japanese Coast Guard watching the ships have kept a close eye on any sign of this.

China has the largest fishing fleet in the world, but the extent to which the Chinese fishing fleet constitutes a paramilitary force or, as it is sometimes called, a “maritime militia” is debated among security analysts. . Somehow, a swarm of Chinese fishing boats always seems to materialize at the right time during disputes in the East and South China Sea.

The use of fishing boats, not to mention the coast guards in principle civilian, tends to blur the distinctions between what is civilian and what is military. In any conflict, Japan and the United States would face seemingly civilian ships that could flood the battlefield, turning it into a confusing melee.

“The Chinese fishing fleet is encouraged to fish in the disputed waters. . . and are encouraged to do so for geopolitical and business reasons, ”says Alan Duport, security analyst at the University of New South Wales.

Swarm tactics have often been used in the South China Sea. Hundreds of boats converged in the Gulf of Tonkin in 2014 in the dispute over the oil rig the Chinese erected in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Beijing sent swarms of fishing boats to Laconia Shoals off the coast of Sarawak to fish in Malaysia’s EEZ, with coastguard vessel escorts to protect them if Kuala Lumpur tried to stop them. Similar clashes took place in Indonesia’s southern Chia Sea EEZ.

China has brought into service new Coast Guard vessels, from converted naval frigates to purpose-built cutters, at an astonishing rate as it can now deploy ships simultaneously to various corners of disputed waters.

It may be better if the main actors in the ongoing conflict are civilian ships. But the warships of the regular Chinese, Japanese and US navies are certainly lurking nearby and ready to retaliate.

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