- Associated Press - Thursday, November 8, 2012

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.

Tensions in the region were highlighted by U.S.-Japanese naval exercises that began Monday at various locations, involving about 37,400 Japanese and 10,000 U.S. troops. At the same time, Japanese and Chinese diplomats were in consultation in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the exercises are “not conducive to mutual trust in regional security.”

The near-constant presence of Chinese ships around the disputed islands has stretched the Japanese coast guard, which pulled out of a recent fleet review to free up ships for patrols.

That was a victory of sorts for Beijing’s vow to claim what it calls sacred territory, between Taiwan and Japan’s Okinawa. Taiwan also claims the islands, which were under U.S. administration after World War II before reverting to Japanese control in 1972.

Lingering resentment

Chinese outrage stems partly from lingering resentment over Japan’s brutal World War II occupation of much of China, feelings that are stoked constantly by China’s education system and state-controlled media. Control of sea lanes and potentially rich underwater minerals are also at play, along with China’s burning desire for respect as a world power.

China and Japan have no formal agreement on preventing unintended incidents at sea, making it easier for events to spin out of control as they did when a Chinese fishing boat rammed a Japanese cutter in 2010, leading to a diplomatic standoff and Chinese protests against Japan.

In Washington, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said last week that each side needs to be calm.

“It’s incredibly important that both countries appreciate what they have built and step back from the brink,” Mr. Campbell said.

Chinese craft entered waters near the islands for the third consecutive day Sunday, marking at least the 11th incursion in recent weeks. The Japanese coast guard has described all the incidents as routine without a risk of clashes, and said none of its ships has backed down.

However, the Chinese government said last week that its boats had performed “expulsion measures” against Japanese ships.

“Chinese law-enforcement vessels have a foothold in the waters around Diaoyu and are expanding their activities to safeguard Chinese sovereignty,” China’s stridently nationalistic Communist Party tabloid Global Times said last week.

The newspaper called that a warning to the Philippines, Vietnam and other neighbors to “think twice before they provoke China.”

Some scholars say China’s apparent strategy to erode Japanese control gradually through low-key actions has been abetted by a noncommittal response from Washington. The Obama administration has said it takes no stance on the islands’ sovereignty, despite recognizing its treaty obligations to back Tokyo in any conflict.

China uses a similar approach in the South China Sea, where it has maritime disputes with several other nations.

Earlier this year, Beijing managed to nudge the Philippines out of a disputed shoal by entering a lengthy but nonviolent maritime standoff.

After both sides stood down, China set up barriers with ropes and buoys to block further access. Chinese ships also have sought to cut sonar cables and otherwise harass ships of the U.S. Navy.



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