Ships from China's new coast guard in disputed waters

VESSELS from China's newly unified coast guard have gone for the first time into waters near a group of isles claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo, a move that could worsen tensions between the two East Asian powers.

The State Oceanic Administration, which oversees the service, confirmed that four of its ships had confronted Japanese ships near the isles called Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by Japan yesterday.

"Our coast guard patrol fleet issued a stern warning to the Japanese ships in violation, declared our government's stand on our sovereignty over the Diaoyu isles and asked that they leave the waters immediately," it said in a statement.

It did not say if the Japanese ships complied.

Meanwhile, Japan's coast guard said the Chinese ships entered waters within 12 nautical miles of the Tokyo-controlled isles and left after three hours yesterday morning.

The latest incident comes just two days after Japan spotted a Chinese Y-8 jet over international waters between the Okinawa main island and Miyako island on Wednesday.

It was the first time a Chinese military plane has passed through the area on its way to the Pacific, said Japan's Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera.

Japan also raised the alarm after it spotted Chinese coast guard ships just outside the territorial waters of the Diaoyu/Senkaku isles on Wednesday.

The ships are part of China's new coast guard, which merges the roles of the marine surveillance unit, the previous coast guard under the police, fisheries law enforcement command of the agriculture ministry and the Customs' anti-smuggling maritime police.

It started operations on Monday, four months after China's legislature had approved the setting up of a unified coast guard in March.

It is hard to say if China's new consolidated coast guard will lead to more patrols near the disputed isles or a higher risk of an armed clash, said military expert Wang Xiangsui of the Beijing Aeronautics and Astronautics University.

But in general, the chances of an improvement in Sino-Japanese relations do not look good for now, he told The Straits Times. "China and Japan are now in a semi-Cold War state," he said.

Japan insists that there is no dispute over the Diaoyu isles. But China has said that Japan must admit that there is one before both sides can talk, he added.

"If both sides do not change their positions, then this state of relations is likely to continue in the short term."

hoaili@sph.com.sg