Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.04.28

Can Japan really shoot at vessels over the Senkaku Islands?

the japan times on March 4, 2021

National Security China

Kyodo News on Feb. 25 ran an article with an incredible headline that said “Japan (now) can shoot at foreign government vessels attempting to land on the Senkaku Islands.” It’s incredible because when I sent this article to my American friend in San Francisco, he said he could not believe Japan could not shoot at invading foreign vessels. His comment hit the nail on the head. The following is the conversation we had over his reasonable questions and my answers.

Couldn’t Japan use weapons before?

No, it could not. Previously, government officials had explained that the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) was only allowed to fire weapons directly at foreign vessels in cases of self-defense or while trying to make an emergency escape. This means that unless the foreign vessels fired weapons or physically attacked it, the JCG could not respond in kind.

The rationale for this strict interpretation was obvious. Legally speaking, the JCG Law applies the use of police or law enforcement power to the activities of JCG. In the past, the JCG’s use of force against foreign vessels may have been considered inconsistent with Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution and its exclusively defense-oriented policy.

Why can Japan do so now?

China enacted and started implementing its new China Coast Guard (CCG) Law on Feb. 1. The updated law allows CCG to use weapons against foreign ships that Beijing sees as illegally entering its territory and to forcibly remove buildings illegally constructed in such areas, including the Senkaku Islands, which is also claimed by China.

Recently, Japanese officials reportedly briefed ruling party parliamentarians that a new interpretation of the JCG Law allows it to directly use military arms against foreign official vessels aiming to land on the Senkaku Islands that are deemed to be “committing violent crimes” under the Japanese criminal code.

There is a clear and existential danger. In the 12 months since January 2020, CCG vessels have entered Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands an average of six to eight times a month. Since the law took effect in China in February this year, the frequency has nearly-doubled to 14 times a month, according to JCG statistics.

Why the interpretation change?

Japan, as government officials claim, did not change the interpretation per se. Their rationale was that the Japanese government has not previously interpreted the JCG Law for the cases of serious or heinous crimes committed by foreign intruders, including CCG vessels.

Upon the implementation of the CCG Law on Feb. 1, Tokyo expressed “grave concern” over the new Chinese legislation. Other like-minded nations such as the Philippines, Vietnam and the United States also expressed similar concerns about China’s violation of international maritime standards.

Nobody in the Japanese government would claim it, but it is obvious that the updated interpretation of the JCG Law was aimed at sending an appropriate message to Beijing that Tokyo is ready and determined to deter any Chinese attempt to change the status quo of the Senkaku Islands.

Is it protecting Japan’s sovereignty?

Legally, no. The JCG Law only stipulates that the JCG’s missions include maintaining maritime order under the rule of law through various activities and thereby protecting security and prosperity at sea. Maintaining sovereignty of Japan seems to be the mission of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF).

Isn’t the JCG part of the SDF?

Not quite. Article 25 of the JCG Law clearly stipulates that no provisions in the law shall be interpreted to mean that the Japan Coast Guard and its members are to be organized, trained or function as a military force. In this sense, the JCG is not a coast guard like those in other countries, but more of a maritime safety agency.

What if the invaders are not armed?

I do not know. If they are unarmed and seemingly not trying to land a on Japanese island, the JCG may not be able to fire on them. However, if an invading force numbers in the tens of thousands, for example, all making their way toward the Senkaku Islands to occupy it, the question is can’t the JCG deem it a heinous crime although it is a clear violation of Japanese sovereignty?

Is JCG under the command of the SDF?

Never. Even in case of contingencies, unlike its Chinese counterpart, the JCG is by definition a nonmilitary organization and by no means subject to being placed under a military command. This may mean that in case of a crisis around the Senkaku Islands, for example, there may be no unified command for JCG and SDF operations.

How can Japan defend the Senkakus?

Honestly, I have no clear answer to the question. That is the reason why some members of Japan’s main ruling Liberal Democratic Party are reportedly calling for legislation that will not only ease conditions for JCG personnel to use weapons but also to establish a joint command to coordinate JCG and SDF operations.

What about U.S. military intervention?

God helps those who help themselves, and it is no different for Japan’s allies. If the Senkaku Islands were to be invaded, it must be the Japanese forces, both JCG and SDF, which go there first and bleed for Japan. If Tokyo asked U.S. forces to go there and fight first, the alliance would immediately end.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was right in saying, “I firmly believe that it is ‘a free and open order based on the rule of law,’ not ‘force or coercion,’ that will bring peace and prosperity to the region and the world.” To maintain a free and open order and to resist force and coercion, however, Japan’s well-coordinated forces should be able to act first.