China Coast Guard Vessels Electronically Proclaim Presence Around Senkakus

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A China Coast Guard vessel, center, is seen between Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels off Uotsuri Island in the Senkaku Islands in January 2023.

China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels have been navigating in Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands in Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture, since March, while operating automatic identification system (AIS) equipment to announce their presence, according to Japan Coast Guard (JCG) sources.

The JCG is wary of such vessels, believing they aim to strengthen Beijing’s arguments to the international community in order to gain effective control of the islands.

An AIS is a radio device that automatically transmits and receives information on a vessel’s position, course, speed and so on. Under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, all passenger ships and other vessels engaged in international voyages are required to carry this equipment. Radio transmissions are received by surrounding ships and satellites, and are used to facilitate safe navigation in heavily trafficked sea areas.

AIS information is publicly available online and can easily be checked on the “Marine Traffic” website, which provides information on vessel operations around the world.

Since March, according to sources related to the JCG, China Coast Guard vessels have been operating AIS devices in the territorial waters and contiguous zone — a band of sea extending 22 kilometers beyond territorial waters — around the Senkaku Islands.

CCG vessels usually sail in fleets of four. One such vessel, with the vessel number “1302,” entered the contiguous zone on May 16. It appeared to be moving around Uotsuri Island and Kuba Island and entered Japan’s territorial waters on May 20 and 21.

In the territorial waters, the Chinese vessel appeared to be tracking a Japanese fishing vessel. Marine Traffic website data showed it repeatedly changed direction on an irregular basis in the waters southeast of Minami-Kojima Island.

In contrast, the Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels that told the Chinese ships to leave the area did not operate their AIS equipment. This is to keep their response capabilities and operations secret. But for that reason, it appeared to observers using the website that only the CCG vessels were active in the area.

According to a person with experience in the JCG’s security division, Chinese government vessels have transmitted AIS information in the past. However, they stopped activating the system in 2018, when the CCG came under the command of the armed police force, an organization under the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, which oversees the Chinese military.

As for why they began transmitting AIS information again, Bonji Ohara, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation and an expert on China’s security policy, offered the analysis that they are transmitting AIS data to build up a record they might claim as evidence of China’s law enforcement record in the surrounding waters in preparation for a dispute over Senkaku territorial rights in international legal settings.

“The Japanese government needs to continue its efforts to demonstrate to the outside world that Japan has territorial rights over the Senkaku Islands and that the islands are under Japanese control,” Ohara said.