China maritime militia may be on board ships near Senkakus

Sunday marks 10 years since the Japanese government purchased some of the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture from a private Japanese owner. Chinese government ships have repeatedly entered Japanese territorial waters around the islands.

Data analysis by NHK has revealed certain fishing vessels near the islands, and a US think tank believes Chinese maritime militia personnel may have been on board. Japan controls the islands. China and Taiwan claim them. The Japanese government maintains the islands are an inherent part of Japan's territory, in terms of history and international law. It says there is no issue of sovereignty to be resolved over them.

Photos taken in March last year show many large Chinese ships in the South China Sea. More than 200 ships were kept at anchor in waters claimed by the Philippines, inside that country's exclusive economic zone.

The US State Department has suggested that Chinese maritime militia personnel were on board the vessels. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said the ships were legally fishing. The spokesperson called it incomprehensible that Chinese fishermen had been labelled as maritime militias.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies says the maritime militias are lightly armed. It says the Chinese government provides them with subsidies for expenses such as fuel.

These vessels reportedly apply pressure just by their presence, fishing in disputed waters. They are also believed to conduct reconnaissance and surveillance operations.

The CSIS published a list of 122 ships operating in the South China Sea that it has identified as militia vessels. It used open-source Chinese materials.

NHK analyzed the movements of these ships in 2021 using tracking data obtained from an Automatic Identification System. Many of the ships spent the first half of the year in the South China Sea. China has overlapping claims there with other parties including the Philippines and Vietnam.

The data also showed more than 10 ships in the East China Sea after the end of July, within 200 kilometers of the Senkaku Islands. They came close to Japan's exclusive economic zone and stayed in the area for a while. At least one vessel moved from southwest to northeast. It passed through Japanese territorial waters and the contiguous zone around the islands. It then went near the islands again before returning to the South China Sea.

Researcher Gregory Poling at the CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative says the ships spotted in the East China Sea may have taken part in joint exercises with the Chinese military and other maritime militias. Through the use of pressure and coercion, short of military force, he says China's military is steadily eating away at Southeast Asian control in the South China Sea, and also slowly but steadily at Japanese capabilities in the Senkakus.

Poling also says further analysis is needed to understand the purpose and activity of the vessels.