TOKYO (THE YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Marine scientific research (MSR) conducted by countries such as China and South Korea, involving the entry of vessels into Japan's territorial waters and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) without consent, are rife.
While such surveys violate the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Japan's response is limited to monitoring and giving warnings about suspicious activity at sea, in addition to raising objections through diplomatic routes.
Understanding of the situation has been slow to develop. The surveys are becoming increasingly bold and pose an increasing threat to marine interests.
A new phase?
Since 2012, when Japan nationalised the Senkaku Islands and Chinese government vessels started to make frequent intrusions into Japanese territorial waters, 106 MSRs without consent have been confirmed in Japan's EEZ by the Japan Coast Guard.
This figure is limited to the number of vessels that have been confirmed by JCG's patrol vessels as engaging in unusual activity at sea, such as the lowering of equipment from a research vessel into the water.
China very much stands out, with 76 cases, about three-quarters of the total number confirmed.
The next most prominent region - with 26 cases - is Taiwan, which claims sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands.
South Korea continues to conduct MSRs without consent in the territorial waters and contiguous zone near Takeshima Island in Shimane Prefecture, which it illegally occupies.
These instances were identified through South Korean academic papers, but few cases have been confirmed by the JCG's patrol vessels - just four cases in 2016 and 2017.
The annual number of incidents involving China peaked at 23 in 2015 and has declined in recent years, with eight incidents in 2017 and four the following year.
However, this does not mean that China has ceased conducting MSRs without consent.
From March 23 to 25 this year, the Tan Kah Kee, China's latest research vessel (displacement 3,450 tons), was sent to the EEZ around Okinotorishima islands, where daily operations were carried out via dropping equipment into the water.
The JCG warns that the situation cannot be viewed optimistically, even though the number of surveys may have declined.
According to the Chinese media, the Tan Kah Kee was put into service in 2017.
The vessel has high-level seabed surveying capability and is top class in terms of quietness.
It is considered the main vessel for China's deep sea and oceanic research.
With its introduction of state-of-the-art vessels into the Pacific Ocean, where vessels have not appeared often in recent years, rather than in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands, which has been the focus of surveys without consent, it is possible that China's research strategy has entered a new phase.
There is other troubling behaviour.
In 2016 and 2018, the JCG confirmed that the Kexue, a main research vessel for the Chinese Academy of Sciences with a displacement of 5,087 tons, conducted multiple MSRs without consent in the waters of the Okinawa Trough.
The details are unknown, but the abstract of an international conference held in Washington at the end of 2018 states that "The gas hydrates have been found at three hydro-thermal fields of the Okinawa trough during two cruises of RV Kexue at 2016 and 2018.
The in situ chemical compositions and cage structures of these gas hydrates were measured by a Raman insertion probe for gas hydrate that was carried and controlled by the remotely operated vehicle."
The Okinawa Trough is basically located in Japan's EEZ, meaning that Japan has jurisdiction over resource development.
Although China has not disclosed the exact dates, Japan did not consent to any of the surveys conducted by the Kexue in these waters in 2018 at least.
If the discovery is as stated in the abstract, this means that China has accessed resources that are under Japanese jurisdiction without consent.
Science put to political use
The number of papers based on MSR without consent is increasing. In the early days, China sporadically published papers related to MSR conducted around Okinotorishima in the winter of 2003 and 2004.
Since an MSR without consent conducted by the Kexue in April 2014 in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands, papers related to this time period have suddenly increased.
The survey was conducted as part of a large national project that China refers to as oceanographic research of the Western Pacific.
Despite the inclusion of research without consent, China has been actively announcing the results in international forums.
In October 2011, the British journal Nature published an editorial criticising China for bringing territorial disputes into the realm of science, saying that in some cases China has added a large territorial waterline of its own insistence to a map in a paper related to the South China Sea.
For China, such papers also function as political tools.
Difficult to ascertain
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea stipulates that scientific surveys in foreign territorial waters and EEZs require the presentation of detailed information including the aim and location of the survey, type of vessel that will be used, and name of researchers at least six months in advance.
Consent must also be obtained from the country with jurisdiction over the waters.
This principle is an established international practice, with countries such as the United States that have not ratified the treaty also following these procedures.
MSRs without consent do not follow such procedures and also include cases where the surveys were conducted in waters other than those that were planned in advance.
The JCG watches for unusual activity and once this has been confirmed, it immediately gives a warning by radio, calling for the cessation of the activity.
As the warning is made to a research vessel, there are limitations to the measures that can be taken on-site under the treaty.
After such an occurrence, there is no option but for the Foreign Ministry to present an objection through diplomatic channels.
What the vessel was actually doing remains unknown.
Considering such limitations, academic papers are one of the few ways of discovering what was being surveyed.
China and South Korea do not hesitate to publish academic papers even if the MSR was done without consent, in order to create a history of the management and control of the waters and claim priority rights to resources and academic achievements.
However, it takes time for papers to be presented and they often cannot be accessed unless one is a member of an academic society or subscribes to academic journals.
It is a demanding job to search for papers related to MSRs without consent from among the numerous papers that are published.
While sampling of the sea floor without consent has been occurring for more than 10 years, this has only come to the awareness of the government through academic papers since the mid-2010s.
Consider international courts
I spoke to Yoshihiko Yamada, a professor at Tokai University's School of Marine Science and Technology who is well-versed in problems related to the ocean, about the current state of affairs of marine scientific research (MSR).
Q: The number of cases of unusual activity has declined.
A: The issue is not the number. The problem has shifted to an issue of quality, and has become more strategic. The fact that MSRs without consent continue to occur even now is a problem in and of itself.
Q: What do you mean by quality?
A: At first, these vessels were simply dropping a wire into the water. These days, however, they are going so far as to take core samples of the ocean floor with a corer. A part of the ocean bottom where Japan has developed and managed have been taken by others. The fear is that China will escalate its activities, coming even closer to Japan, for example.
Q: Japan has raised objections each time an MSR without consent has taken place.
A: Japan's response is limited to objections. It is hard for it to eliminate this activity through force. This being the case, we should definitely think seriously about taking this to international courts such as the International Court of Justice, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, or an arbitral tribunal. In a court of arbitration, the case can proceed even if one party refuses the trial.
Q: Why does China have its eyes on the Senkaku Islands and Okinawa Trough?
A: One reason is sea lanes. China must go through waters near Japan, such as the Tsushima Strait and the Osumi Strait. This is the case even if it uses the Arctic passage. It must acquire detailed information about the seas near Japan. China also has an interest in resources in the Okinawa Trough.
Q: The research is being published in more and more papers.
A: China uses papers for propaganda purposes. South Korea also imitates China's propaganda methods, because the Moon Jae-in administration must demonstrate to the people that it has firm control over Takeshima Island.
The author is a Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer. The Yomiuri Shimbun is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media entities.