New legislation being considered that would radically alter current Japan Coast Guard policy toward how it engages foreign vessels in Japan's waters could inadvertently hurl the region toward a hot conflict involving China.
The new proposed law comes at a moment of more frequent and heightened incidents between Chinese and Japanese vessels around the contested Senkaku islands near Taiwan (and which happen to also be claimed as Taiwan's). Currently Japan doesn't have a mechanism which would activate its Self-Defense Forces in any entanglement with Chinese fishermen landing on the islands, which might escalate to involve Chinse military patrols.
But that could change, especially after Beijing recently allowed its own coast guard to be militarized at a moment it attempts to stave off regional rivals' claims to islands in the East and South China Seas. Tokyo is preparing to beef up is own ability for an immediate and rapid response, as Nikkei details of the new legislation: "The Japanese government says the Police Duties Execution Act allows ships to fire on vessels to halt an unauthorized landing," Further it explains, "If the police or coast guard is unable to mount an adequate response, then a phone call and a snap decision by the Cabinet would mobilize the Self-Defense Forces to a police operation."
And here's more on why Japan considers the beefing up of its rules of engagement necessary, according to Nikkei:
Unconvinced, LDP lawmakers involved in defense policy last week put together a proposal for legislation that "fills the gap."
The document calls for amending Japan's coast guard law. The changes would allow coast guard vessels, within the bounds of international law, to use arms against foreign ships that refuse to comply with expulsion orders.
The caucus is also pushing for rules that would allow the deployment of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force to remote islands in advance to cut down on the response time in the event of a hostile situation.
It would take current potential conflict situations that previously were dubbed 'gray-zone' matters - which fall short of allowing for hostile engagement - and would effectively allow for the weaponization of the coast guard to stave off a surprise takeover of an island (such as in the Senkakus).
The Nikkei report describes that one common emerging view among Japanese officials is that China is indeed preparing to dramatically scale-up its presence in the Senkakus and other contested islands in a bid to assert control.
This, the report says, is likely to lead to a "nightmare scenario" for the Japan Coast Guard, which goes something like this:
A Chinese fishing boat breaks down near Japan's Senkaku Islands. China, which claims the islands and calls them the Diaoyu, instructs its own coast guard to protect the boat. The fishermen land on one of the islands to wait for repair parts, ignoring warnings by Japan. Amid tension and confusion, alarmed China coast guard personnel start firing at their Japanese counterparts.
Amid repeated Chinese incursions in waters near the Senkakus, such scenarios are not out of the question any more. Discussions within Japan's ruling party have reignited regarding the need for legislation that explicitly lays out the rules of engagement in such cases.
China has spent years warning Tokyo over the islands which have been contested for over a century, with the United States officially recognizing Japan's claims over the uninhabited islands, and with Biden previously reiterating America's commitment to protective them in accord with Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty.
Despite Japan laying claim to the islands since 1895 China began strongly reasserting claims especially in the 1970s, triggering a crisis which became more acute after in 2012 when Japan's government purchased three of the disputed islands from a private owner. The area is considered potentially resource-rich, including likely oil and gas reserves, along with being considered excellent fishing grounds and close to key shipping lanes.