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Chinese, With Revamped Force, Make Presence Known in East China Sea

By JANE PERLEZ, BEIJING (NY Times): China launched its revamped coast guard last week and immediately sent four ships, emblazoned with the new red, white and blue logo, to patrol waters off disputed islands in the nearby East China Sea.

The message was clear: China planned to use the new unified paramilitary vessels to keep pressure on Japan over the sovereignty of the tiny islands, an issue that has riled relations between the two countries.

At the same time as the newly designated coast guard vessels appeared in the waters on Wednesday, China sent a turboprop early-warning aircraft through international airspace between the islands of Okinawa and Miyako, an area where Japan said Chinese planes had not flown before. The Japanese called the flight by the Y-8 aircraft the latest in a series of provocations aimed at forcing concessions from Japan, which administers the disputed islands, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.

The merger of four Chinese maritime units into one superagency was announced in March. The actual creation of the new force has been nervously awaited in the Asia Pacific region as another sign of China’s fast-growing maritime capability and its determination to enforce claims in the South China Sea, as well as the East China Sea.

The large number of Chinese and Japanese maritime vessels in dangerous proximity in the East China Sea at a time of high tensions over the islands has raised alarm in Washington about clashes that could lead to larger conflict.

In such an escalation, the United States might be pulled into the fight because the mutual defense pact with Japan obliges Washington to defend all territories administered by Japan.

A senior Chinese Navy official, Zhang Junshe, vice president of the Naval Research Institute, hailed the unification of China’s maritime law enforcement agencies under a new National Oceanic Administration as the creation of an “iron fist” that would replace ineffective operations scattered among a number of agencies.

In Washington, the growing power of China’s maritime forces is being closely watched. The American allies in the region — Japan, South Korea and the Philippines — all have serious squabbles with China over maritime territorial and boundary issues, and fishing rights. The Philippines is taking an arbitration case over an island dispute with China to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

At a conference on maritime safety in Beijing last week, four retired American admirals, three retired American defense attachés and a group of American maritime experts met with Chinese officials to discuss the ramifications of the strengthened Chinese Coast Guard.

The new coast guard is a “positive development,” said Susan L. Shirk, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, who organized the conference for the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. Vessels belonging to the fisheries law enforcement agency have been particularly aggressive in the South China Sea over the past few years, and this kind of behavior may be modified under the new structure, she said.

“It’s good for China’s neighbors and the United States because we know who is responsible and who we can hold responsible,” Ms. Shirk said. “As they develop a sense of professionalism in accordance with international law, it should make for lower risk of accidents.”

A Chinese naval expert, Li Jie, said the Chinese coast guard ships would most likely be outfitted with “light weaponry,” like “high-pressure water cannons and guns.” Japan’s Coast Guard ships, which patrol the waters off the disputed islands, are armed with weapons including large deck guns, similar to those on board United States Coast Guard vessels.

“We should be realistic,” Ms. Shirk said. “The Chinese Coast Guard will model themselves on the United States, and the Japanese and the South Korean Coast Guards, all of which are more capable with equipment than the Chinese Coast Guard at the moment.”

A rapid five-year program to build 30 new cutters for China’s Coast Guard, announced in 2010, is well under way, said Lyle J. Goldstein, associate professor at the China Maritime Studies Institute of the United States Naval War College in Rhode Island, who attended the Beijing conference. “Our Coast Guard would love to have a building program that approximates that.”

In some respects, the reinforced coast guard, even as it plays an important role in territorial disputes, should not be a concern, he said.

“Of the 10 biggest ports in the world, more than half are in China,” Mr. Goldstein said. “They have some of the busiest sea lanes in the world. Even putting the disputes aside, there are still legitimate safety, environmental and management reasons for these enhanced capabilities.”

Bree Feng contributed research.

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