Safety concerns complicate work of coast guards at disputed islands

Chinese activists arrested on suspicion of violating Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law at disputed island in East China Sea, known as Senkaku in Japan or Diaoyu in China, escorted by Japan Coast Guard crew as they disembark in Naha

The Japan Coast Guard's response to the recent trespassers in the disputed islands was appropriate, Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Yuichiro Hata has declared.

At a press conference after Friday's Cabinet meeting, he said, "Though their landing on one of the islands was regrettable, we properly responded without causing an accident."

The ship used for the illegal landing and protests by the intruders was a small one, at 200 tons with a top speed of about 15 kilometers per hour.

The vessel's specifications were much lower than those of JCG patrol vessels.

If two JCG vessels had taken tougher action by sandwiching the ship and having their officers board it, it is highly likely that the illegal landing could have been prevented.

But the government was concerned that if any of the activists died or were injured during a confrontation in waters where waves were high at the time, it might become a source of fresh conflict between Japan and China.

Therefore, the JCG did not take such tough action this time.

A senior JCG official said: "In contrast to malicious criminals such as stimulant drug smugglers, the trespassers in this incident only aimed at staging a performance to claim sovereignty over the islands. It's difficult to take drastic action [in such a case]."

In line with the initial policy, no activists were harmed, but the result might have given the misleading impression that landing on the islands is tolerated.

As a result, there may be an increase in foreign activists aiming to illegally land on the islands.

The JCG has sent patrol vessels from regional coast guard headquarters in other parts of the country to waters around the islands as reinforcements in addition to vessels of the 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters.

Hata said, "Our defences are already reinforced," suggesting further strengthening of the guard is not necessary.

But if protest activities were to escalate, with a large group of ships forcing its way into the sea near the islands, the JCG's capability to counter such moves would not be sufficient.

This time, the government quickly dispatched police officers to the island in advance of the activists' landing, having become aware of the intended action of the protest ship. But it is not guaranteed that such measures will be possible every time in the future.

A bill to revise the Japan Coast Guard Law to give JCG officers the authority to investigate and arrest suspects on remote islands is still under deliberation in the Diet. Thus the JCG's options are limited.

Another senior JCG official said, "Just like this time, we must properly handle each individual case when activists intrude into territorial waters."

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