Defense Perspective: In the field / JCG, MSDF cooperating more closely to protect Japanese waters

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A SeaGuardian drone operated by the Japan Coast Guard is seen at the MSDF base in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, on Nov. 17.

This is the fourth installment in a series monitoring ongoing international developments and identifying necessary tasks if Japan were to become embroiled in a contingency.


With China Coast Guard ships repeatedly sailing through waters near the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan Coast Guard patrol boats have been on call day and night protecting the nation from intrusions that embody Beijing’s attempts to change the status quo.

On Oct. 1, two CCG ships approached a Japanese fishing boat in waters off Minamikojima Island in the Senkaku Isles. As the Chinese ships entered Japanese territorial waters, JCG patrol boats slipped in between them and the fishing boat.

The maneuver protected the fishing boat and blocked the movements of the CCG ships.

One of the JCG patrol boats displayed a message in Chinese that read: “Your ship has entered Japanese territorial waters. Your movement is not recognized as an innocent passage.”

The CCG vessels ignored JCG requests to leave Japanese waters and spent at least 10 hours trailing fishing boats that day.

“We sail close enough to the CCG ships to issue warnings, but we must maintain a certain distance so we don’t provoke them,” said Mitsuru Yoshida, captain of the Ikema patrol boat that dealt with the situation. “Keeping that balance is vital.”

The JCG strategy is to act “calmly and resolutely,” said Takahiro Okushima, a former JCG commandant. The JCG aims to check the movements of CCG vessels while avoiding any actions that could ratchet up tensions.

Compared to the JCG fleet, the CCG has almost twice as many large patrol boats weighing 1,000 tons or more, but the JCG has more patrol boats operating in waters around the Senkaku Islands.

With the capabilities of the fleet being enhanced in recent years, CCG vessels rarely leave waters around the Senkaku Islands even when a typhoon approaches the region. In 2021, CCG ships sailed through the contiguous zone outside Japanese territorial waters around the islands for a total of 332 days.

In the past, the JCG conducted training exercises when Chinese ships were not operating in the area, but it has become more difficult to hold such drills.

A military-spec 76-millimeter gun was spotted on a CCG vessel in waters around the Senkaku Islands for the first time on Nov. 15.

Although a JCG vessel at the scene told headquarters the situation was under control, the possibility that a Chinese military weapon has been deployed on a CCG vessel has rung alarm bells at the JCG.

Following that incident, a CCG vessel that appeared to be equipped with a 76-millimeter gun intruded into Japanese territorial waters on Nov. 25.

“The Chinese military and the China Coast Guard are getting closer and closer,” a senior JCG official told The Yomiuri Shimbun.

Amid such circumstances, the government is considering a significant boost to the JCG budget. The JCG is likely to use the additional funds to purchase patrol boats and cover shortfalls in fuel and repair expenses.

The JCG is also working more closely with the Maritime Self-Defense Force to better prepare for an emergency situation.

On Nov. 17, a SeaGuardian drone took off at 2:55 p.m. from the MSDF base in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, and headed out over the Pacific Ocean. “Japan Coast Guard” is printed in blue on the drone’s white body. About 10 minutes after the drone took off, an MSDF P-3C surveillance aircraft rumbled onto the same runway.

The JCG started operating the SeaGuardian from the base in October.

The drone returned at about 7 a.m. the next day after conducting maritime surveillance operations on its twentieth flight.

The unmanned aircraft can stay in the air for more than 24 hours and is capable of flying around the whole archipelago.

A framework through which information collected during the drone’s flights can swiftly be shared with the MSDF is in the pipeline. The MSDF plans to deploy a SeaGuardian at the same base next fiscal year and will share information with the JCG during trial operations.

“Closer cooperation between the MSDF and the JCG is extremely important amid the nation’s severe security environment,” Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said. “We will work hard to fundamentally improve our capabilities to accurately assess situations that arise at sea.”

Possibly before the end of this fiscal year, the MSDF and JCG are planning to hold their first joint exercise in which an armed attack on Japan will be simulated.

Progress is being made on settling “control protocols” to specify the procedures under which the JCG would come under the defense minister’s command in the event of an emergency.

Should such an emergency occur, the JCG would be tasked with evacuating civilians and protecting waters near important social infrastructure such as nuclear power plants.

The government is determined to avoid a military clash over the Senkaku Islands and has positioned reinforcing and expanding the JCG as a key part of strengthening the nation’s defense capabilities.

“We want the JCG to stand firm in ‘gray zone’ situations that have not reached the threshold of an armed attack,” a senior MSDF official said. “If the MSDF was front and center in such situations, the Chinese side would not hesitate to jack up tensions, raising the risk of an all-out clash.”

Japan’s security policy must focus on steadily building up deterrence and carefully managing tensions, adopting as a blueprint the JCG approach of handling situations “calmly and resolutely.”