- The Washington Times - Friday, October 19, 2012

China started naval exercises Friday in the East China Sea, practicing coordination between navy warships and paramilitary patrol vessels it has sent to a chain of nearby islands, as part of a festering territorial dispute with Japan.

“The drill included simulations of illegal entry, obstruction, harassment and intentional interference by foreign vessels,” China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported, citing a statement from the People’s Liberation Army’s Donghai Fleet.

A total of 11 ships, eight aircraft and more than 1,000 personnel participated, including vessels from Beijing’s aishery administration and the China Marine Surveillance agency.

Lightly armed or unarmed police vessels from both agencies are patrolling the disputed island chain, called Senkaku by the Japanese and Diaoyu by the Chinese.

“The exercise was aimed at improving coordination between the navy and administrative patrol vessels, as well as sharpening their response to emergencies in order to safeguard China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime interests,” Xinhua said.

The involvement of China Marine Surveillance vessels is significant.

Separate from the navy, China Marine Surveillance is one of several law-enforcement or paramilitary maritime agencies that Beijing increasingly has used in recent years to assert or buttress territorial claims in the South and East China seas, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.

China Marine Surveillance is the largest of these agencies, with about 300 ships, the report states.

Although the vessels are unarmed or lightly armed, some are as large as a U.S. frigate. They can be intimidating and effective in a standoff at sea, especially with civilian craft.

China Marine Surveillance vessels were involved in a confrontation with Philippine fishing boats off the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea earlier this year.

While tiny and uninhabited, the Diaoyo/Senkaku islands are considered strategically vital because they sit astride major shipping lanes, in addition to the fishing and oil and gas rights that sovereignty over them brings.

Analysts say competing territorial claims are fueled by a determination on the part of the region’s smaller nations to secure their access to such resources in the shadow of China’s rise as a regional superpower.