- Chinese and Russian vessels have for the first time jointly sailed through the Tsugaru Strait in between Japan’s Honshu and Hokkaido islands
- The strait is an international waterway due to a Cold War-era decision to allow US ships carrying nuclear weapons to pass through without violating Japan’s non-nuclear position
The passage of 10 Chinese and Russian warships through a narrow strait in the north of Japan on Monday did not violate Japan’s territorial waters, but has exploited a loophole that’s set alarm bells ringing in Tokyo, according to analysts.
The fleet had been taking part in joint military drills in the Sea of Japan earlier this month, as the two navies have done in the past, but analysts say it will have been a calculated manoeuvre by Beijing and Moscow to subsequently route the warships through the Tsugaru Strait for the first time.
The strait, which separates the main island of Honshu and the northern prefecture of Hokkaido, is international waters open to foreign ships, but narrows to a chokepoint just 19.5km wide. It connects the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean.
During the Cold War, Tokyo made the deliberate decision to limit its territorial waters to just three nautical miles from the shore of both Honshu and Hokkaido, instead of the 12 it is entitled to claim, in order to leave a narrow passage through the middle.
The strip of unclaimed water permitted US ships carrying nuclear weapons to transit the strait without violating Japan’s commitment to the “Three Non-Nuclear Principles” of not developing or deploying atomic weapons, as well as not permitting nuclear arms to enter its territory.
The combined Chinese and Russian fleet made the most of that position, although they were closely monitored throughout the journey by a Japanese P-3C maritime surveillance aircraft and two minesweepers. As well as exploiting the territorial anomaly while still complying with international law, the fleet’s passage will have been seen in Tokyo as a thinly-veiled warning.
On Tuesday, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki said Tokyo was “closely watching Chinese and Russian naval vessels’ activities around Japan like this one with high interest”.
“We will continue to do our utmost in our surveillance activity in waters and airspace around Japan,” he said at a regular news conference.
“China appears to be showing off its military strength to Japan and its ability to sail where it wants to, while Russia is sending a similar message to the USA security analyst
“China and Russia have carried out these exercises in the past, but this is the first time their ships have used the Tsugaru Strait to enter the Pacific,” said a security analyst with the National Institute of Defence Studies (NIDS), affiliated with the Defence Ministry in Tokyo.
“China appears to be showing off its military strength to Japan and its ability to sail where it wants to, while Russia is sending a similar message to the US,” said the official, who requested anonymity.
“This will cause concern in Tokyo, as we see the strategic cooperation between the two nations’ forces intensifying and directed at Japan,” he said, adding that Chinese warships’ increased access to the Pacific and the east coast of the Japanese archipelago was an added concern, as this was where most the nation’s military installations were located.
The Chinese, US and South Korean navies have used the route in the past but traverses by the latter two countries never raised concerns as they were considered allied or non-belligerent states.
But the ministry analyst anticipates that now the Chinese and Russian navies have sailed the waters between Honshu and Hokkaido, they are very likely to repeat the manoeuvre in the future.
James Brown, an associate professor of international relations specialising in security issues at the Tokyo campus of Temple University, said that what was essentially a “parade of 10 foreign warships” just a few kilometres off the coast of Japan was “symbolic, but also a real cause for concern” in Tokyo.
“China and Russia continue to get closer together and together they are communicating the message that they can create difficulties for Japan,” he told This Week in Asia. “And while it’s important to point out that they have not violated Japan’s territorial waters, this is all about signalling.”
The joint crossing comes as Japan’s ties with China continue being plagued by conflicting claims over a group of tiny East China Sea islets. Tokyo has a territorial dispute with Moscow, as well.
Neither Beijing nor Moscow are happy about the creation – and possible expansion – of the Quad security alliance, which brings together the US, Japan, Australia and India, Brown said, while a demonstration of shared military capabilities so close to Japan could also be interpreted as a warning that Japan should not consider following in Australia’s footsteps and obtaining a nuclear submarine capability, potentially expanding the Aukus alliance.
The Defence Ministry in Tokyo identified the five Chinese vessels as a Renhai-class destroyer, a Luyang-III destroyer, a pair of Jiangkai-class frigates and a Fuchi-class replenishment vessel, the Nikkei newspaper reported. The Russian component was made up of two Udaloy-class destroyers, a pair of Steregushchiy frigates and a Marshal Nedelin-class missile tracking vessel.
The Chinese vessels were initially identified entering the Sea of Japan between Kyushu and the Korean peninsula on October 11 and were understood to have taken part in the Naval Interaction 2021 exercises with their Russian counterparts between October 14 and 17.
The exercises included anti-submarine warfare operations, both during the day time and at night, and signalling drills.
As part of their ramped-up cooperation in the region, China and Russia have been carrying out more joint military exercises in the region, although last year’s scheduled drills were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Collaboration between the two militaries has also been seen in their air assets, with bomber units carrying out joint manoeuvres.