When in 2010 Japan’s Coast Guard seized a Chinese trawler, the Minjinyu 5179, in disputed waters of the East China Sea close to the islands Japanese call the Senkaku and Chinese the Diaoyu it caused a diplomatic row that bought relations between Tokyo and Beijing to a testy and very public low. Repeat incidents since have been dealt with more discretely. But now Japan’s Coast Guard is being given greater powers by the country’s parliament to seize or expel ‘suspicious’ vessels in its waters, including in disputed waters claimed by Japan, more discretion over the use of weapons in such incidents and fresh powers to interrogate suspects on land.
The legislation appears aimed directly at China and comes in the wake of other moves to bolster Japan’s Self-Defence Forces in response to Beijing’s perceived military build-up in the region. We shall be watching to see how Beijing chooses to react to the Coast Guard’s new powers as a bellwether of the current state of bilateral relations. A few days ago, a visit to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands by Okinawa officials brought a swift complaint from Beijing while a group of Chinese activists attempted to sail there to protest against the Japanese visit.