Japan is stepping up its law enforcement activities around the Senkaku Islands and is making that change public. Since 2012, Japan has had its Coast Guard assume a more active role in patrolling the Senkaku Islands, albeit without substantially increasing the overall budget. This comes in reponse to  increased Chinese incursions into the territorial waters and contiguous zones of the islands, which have spiked significantly since the Japanese government purchased three of the Senkaku Islands in 2012. By using the Coast Guard, Japan is able to at least partially address grey-zone security concerns while sidestepping mixed domestic sentiment about military activity and spending.

Despite tensions around the islands, the Japan Coast Guard’s budget has remained relatively steady over the last ten years. The pre-supplementary budget for FY2015 is only 4.8% higher than that of FY2006, though some funding has rolled over from the previous year’s supplementary budget. Internally, however, the Japan Coast Guard has reallocated funds for creating a Senkaku fleet and is resourcing shipbuilding and doctrinal changes to match. The FY2015 draft budget requests 187.6 billion JPY, with the lion’s share going toward reinforcing fleet strength and staffing, including building six new PL (Patrol vessel Large)-class ships for Senkaku patrols.

The new fleet dedicated to Senkaku patrols will consist of a total of 12 patrol vessels, including four patrol vessels that were already built at the Ishigaki Coast Guard Office in FY2014 (PL81 Taketomi, PL82 Nagura, PL83 Kabira, PL84 Zanki), and two existing PLH (Patrol vessel Large with Helicopter)-class patrol vessels from the 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters. Meanwhile, the six new PL-class ships will have an overall length of 96 meters (314ft), a displacement of 1,500GT, and will have a helicopter landing pad. The Japan Coast Guard has also introduced a new crew rotation system to some of the new PL-class patrol vessels in order to increase their operational capacity and availability. This comes alongside a request for 435 new employees, including 263 “strategic reinforcements” and 172 individuals for new mission requirements and maritime challenge response. If the budget is approved by the Diet, the total number of Japan Coast Guard personnel will be 13,422. The investment in new capabilities is undeniable. At the commissioning of the PL81 Taketomi and PL82 Nagura last year, Admiral Yuji Sato, Commandant of the Japan Coast Guard, noted that “this is one of the largest-ever investments in the 66-year Japan Coast Guard history.”

The new JCG budget also provides for increased operational flexibility in Senkaku contingencies, for instance, by setting up nationwide response systems for increased activity around the islands. Outside of the Senkaku fleet, the Japan Coast Guard will fund an additional six new PL class patrol vessels (FY2016), six new PM (Patrol vessel Medium)-class patrol vessels (FY2016, FY2017) and life extension or upgrades for two PLH class patrol vessels (FY2015). Moreover, it includes the procurement of new long-range high-speed jet aircraft with sophisticated surveillance systems to enhance monitoring capabilities.

Number of Chinese vessels entering contiguous zone or territorial sea surrounding the Senkaku Islands


Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan

Despite this growth, however, there is little doubt that China’s presence in the East China Sea remains a challenge for the JCG. From January of 2008 to January of 2012, there were a total of 65 incursions by Chinese vessels into the Senkaku Islands’ territorial waters. In September of 2014 alone, the two year anniversary of the islands’ acquisition, there were 120 recorded incidents. While many of these incidents involve Chinese hulls slipping briefly across the line and then withdrawing, no matter how small the incursion, the Japan Coast Guard is obligated to respond and escort the intruders out. This poses an operational challenge for Japan’s maritime service. In addition to the challenges posed by Beijing’s incursions, in March 2013, China unified maritime law enforcement agencies under the umbrella of the State Oceanic Administration, creating a single Coast Guard force. This unified force is better resourced than its predecessors. Later this year China will deploy a Coast Guard ship with more than 10,000 tons of displacement. With a better equipped, more aggressive Chinese Coast Guard encroaching on its territory, Japan feels it must respond.

On March 13, 2015, the FY2015 budget passed Japan’s House of Representatives. Discussion continues within the House of Councilors, however the budget will be approved automatically on April 11, even if the Upper House fails to reach a decision. It is likely the new Senkaku fleet will be assembled and deployed. Some might argue that the larger law enforcement footprint increases the risk of a security incident between the two Coast Guards. In fact, communications and confidence between the two Coast Guards are at an all-time high. The Japanese and Chinese Coast Guards, perhaps by virtue of working in such close proximity, share a close, professional relationship built on cooperative Search and Rescue activities, commandant meetings, and exceptional levels of experience reading signals from one another. When looking at the activities of Coast Guards operating in sensitive waters, it is important to remember that these are professional forces with great experience and training.

Even though the two services have experience operating together, however, the Chinese incursions in Japanese territorial water continue to cause strains. Any interaction between the two services has the potential for escalation. The greatest risk, however, is probably not the interactions of these two maritime services, but the potential for some unexpected event.  As we saw in 2010, all it takes is a wayward fishing boat to create ripples throughout Asia.

About Nao Arakawa

Nao Arakawa is a Research Fellow of Japan International Transport Institute (JITI), USA. Mr. Arakawa conducts research on complex issues relating to maritime security, including the political economy of the US maritime transportation industry.

About Will Colson

William Colson is a research assistant with the Japan Chair at CSIS, where he manages projects that focus on East Asian economics, security, and U.S.-Japan relations.