Chinese naval passage seen as protest

A handout from the Japan Coast Guard which shows a Chinese fishing patrol ship (above) cruising near the disputed islands in the East China Sea on Oct 2.

JAPAN - Some government officials believe Tuesday's passage of seven Chinese naval vessels through a contiguous zone near Nakanokamishima island in Okinawa Prefecture was intended to protest Japan's recent placement of the Senkaku Islands under direct state control.

After the Chinese ships passed through the waters, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda told reporters at the Prime Minister's Office that the nation would steadfastly continue its precautionary and surveillance activities.

Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country's sovereignty in contiguous zones is limited to immigration control and some other fields, and foreign vessels have the right to travel freely through such waters.

However, the Sakishima Islands' contiguous zone, where the Chinese fleet travelled Tuesday, is about 200 kilometers from the Senkaku Islands, which China claims are part of its territory.

Considering the Chinese fleet was heading toward the Senkakus, Shinsuke Sugiyama, director general at the Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, lodged a protest at the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo on Tuesday morning. "We asked [the Chinese government] to take appropriate action from a broad perspective of Japan-China relations," Sugiyama said.

The Chinese Navy has repeatedly conducted military exercises in the Pacific Ocean after sailing from the East China Sea through waters near Okinawa Prefecture in recent years. However, Chinese naval vessels had never been spotted in the contiguous zone around Nakanokamishima, Japanese officials said.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Japanese government confirmed the Chinese fleet was not traveling toward the Senkaku Islands. Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said at a press conference that observers should not casually speculate about China's intentions.

"Since a typhoon is approaching another route [the ships could take], China might have thought it could use weather problems as an excuse if the passage of its vessels through the waters became a problem," a senior Defence Ministry official said.

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