There is no plausible explanation other than deliberate projection of military power for the recent, unexplained presence of China’s navy vessels in the sea close to the uninhabited Senkaku Islands near Japan.

The two countries have a dispute over control of the islands for years now and China refuses arbitration and insists that the islands belong to it.

Chinese vessels have now been spotted near the islands, including in the so-called contiguous zone outside Japanese waters, for 81 days in a row, according to the coast guard. Simultaneously, Japan’s Defense Ministry said it spotted “at least two Chinese warships” and a supply ship in the Izu Islands, about 500 kilometers (310 miles) south of Tokyo. One of those ships appeared to be the Lhasa, a Type 055 guided-missile destroyer and one of China’s most powerful surface ships

Over a week ago, a Chinese frigate sailed in the contiguous zone for about six minutes from 7:44 a.m., about 40 minutes after a Russian warship was in the area, according to Japanese Defense Ministry officials.It was the first time since June 2018 that a Chinese military vessel had entered the zone near the Senkakus.

There is tension in the area at a time when Japan and China are set to mark the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties in September. However, neither side is in a mood to celebrate the occasion.

Japan protested to China expressing “grave concern” following the incident. Thereafter, coastguard vessels entered the territorial waters of Japan. Tokyo protested again.

However, Chinese foreign ministry came back with a bland reply that the area is part of “China’s territory.” The spokesperson said: “The activities of Chinese vessels in the adjacent waters are legitimate and lawful. The Japanese side has no right to point fingers over these activities.”

Japan’s coast guard sent its own patrol ships to the area and demanded the Chinese vessels immediately leave Japan’s territorial waters.

Such incursions are common in the disputed area. Both countries claim the uninhabited islands as their own, but Japan has administered them since 1972. Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a Chinese province, also claims ownership of the islands.

According to the Japanese coast guard, the latest incursion marked the longest period of time that Chinese government vessels had spent in the waters since 2012, after Tokyo bought some of the islands from a private Japanese owner. The longest incursion earlier was in October 2020, when a Chinese vessel stayed for more than 57 hours.

The latest instance comes even as friction is growing between the two countries, particularly as China is wary about Japan’s growing relations with the US. The QUAD is the bone of contention. Last month, Tokyo hosted a summit for the increasingly active Quad security grouping, made up of Japan, the United States, Australia and India. Beijing views the group as part of American efforts to contain it.

It may be recalled that soon after the QUAD summit ended, China conducted “strategic dair patrols” over the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea and the western Pacific Ocean, though the world knew better.

The CNN put the Chinese incursion in Japan’s waters in perspective: “Think of how Beijing built up islands in the South China Sea and then fortified them, eventually establishing what the former head of the US Pacific Command in 2018 called a “Great Wall of SAMs,” — surface-to-air missiles — on islands that years earlier Chinese leader Xi Jinping had pledged not to militarize. It quoted President Xi Jinping telling former US President Barack Obama in 2015 that “relevant construction activities that China is undertaking in the Nansha (Spratly) islands do not target or impact any country, and China does not intend to pursue militarization”. Obviously there is a difference between the cup and the lip.

The western defence experts convey to the western media that the latest incursion means that Beijing “may be slowly peeling back the onion in another disputed island chain, the rocky, uninhabited Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, administered by Japan and known as the Diaoyus in China”. This is in sync with the Japanese defence ministry statement that the Chinese Coast Guard and even naval ships have been spending record amounts of time in the waters around the Senkakus this year

What is a contiguous zone? In the China-Japan context, it “covers waters between islands that do not fall into the 12-nautical-mile limit of a nation’s territorial waters”. According to CNN, “foreign warships are allowed into those waters — so the Chinese navy hasn’t broken any international agreements — and China’s Foreign Ministry told CNN earlier this year that the Chinese Coast Guard’s patrols in the waters surrounding the islands were ‘an appropriate exercise of China’s sovereign right’.”

Apart from the military value, the islands have economic interests both countries are interested in. Reports say, “the islands ‘have potential oil and natural gas reserves, are near prominent shipping routes, and are surrounded by rich fishing areas’.”

It is only after claims of the existence of oil reserves in the East China Sea surfaced in the 1970s that China showed real interest in claiming ownership of the islands. Japan has since tried all ways to resolve the issue but China has shown no interest in negotiating over the islands.