BEIJING — Chinese patrol boats have harried the Japanese coast guard many times a week for more than a month in an unusually relentless response to their latest maritime spat.
Four Chinese craft typically push to within hailing distance of Japan’s ships. They flash illuminated signs in Japanese to press Beijing’s argument that it has ancient claims to a set of tiny East China Sea islands now controlled by Tokyo. China says its craft have tried to chase away the Japanese at least once, although Japan denies that any of its ships have fled.
The surge in incidents has brought the sides into dangerous proximity, reflecting a campaign by Beijing to wear down Japanese resolve with low-level, nonmilitary maneuvers but also boosting the risk of a clash.
Although China wields a formidable arsenal, it has not deployed military assets in such encounters.
Instead, Beijing has dispatched ships from government maritime agencies — only one of which is armed — to keep a lid on gunfire. Those agencies are receiving increased attention, with new ships on order and a national call for recruits.
China says ships from its marine surveillance service are merely defending Chinese sovereignty and protesting illegal Japanese control over the uninhabited islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
The missions began after the Japanese government purchased three of the five islands from their private Japanese owner in September, enraging a Chinese government that saw it as an attempt to boost Japan’s sovereignty claim. It also sparked violent protests against Japan in dozens of Chinese cities.
Risk of confrontation
China’s short-term goal has been primarily to force Japan to at least acknowledge that the islands are in dispute. However, the boost in patrols raises the likelihood of a bigger confrontation, said Wang Dong, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Strategic Studies at Peking University.
“I’m very concerned about the current situation. The possibility of escalation cannot be ruled out,” Mr. Wang said.
With emotions running high, any accident or miscalculation in these maritime missions could yield unexpected outcomes.
“One side might deploy a naval vessel in a support fashion, a move that the other would match,” said M. Taylor Fravel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is following the dispute closely.
Japan has made it clear that it intends to meet the Chinese challenge in kind.
Japanese coast guard spokesman Yasuhiko Oku said the dispute was a factor behind the government’s allocation last week of $212 million to beef up the coast guard fleet with seven more patrol ships and three helicopters, though he said these assets are not only for use around the islands.
Mr. Oku declined, for national security reasons, to disclose how many ships patrol the islands, but he said the dispute has been a “significant draw” on resources.