Japan moves to prevent Chinese spying on its seabed

Julian Ryall

Tokyo is to introduce new measures to prevent China obtaining data on the seabed within Japan’s territorial waters.

The measures include requiring civilian ships to report the presence of foreign vessels carrying out underwater research and insisting that domestic exploration companies hired by third parties divulge where the data will end up.

In recent years, Japanese coastguard vessels and long-range reconnaissance aircraft have identified Chinese government ships carrying out what appears to be research on the seabed and water conditions within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 nautical miles from its territorial waters.

And there is concern that China may also be seeking data within Japan’s territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical miles from its coastline.

In January 2019, Japan made an official protest to Beijing after a Chinese government survey vessel was found operating within Japan’s EEZ around Okinotorishima, an atoll 1,740km south of Tokyo.

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Operated by China’s State Oceanic Administration, the vessel may have been trying to obtain data on valuable natural deposits below the seabed, including oil and gas, but it may also have been seeking deep water passages that would allow Beijing’s growing fleet of submarines to emerge undetected into the Pacific from the shallow coastal waters between mainland China and the islands that hem the Chinese navy in.

Even more worryingly, there is now evidence that China may be trying to gather data on ocean conditions much closer to Japan’s shores, the Yomiuri newspaper reported.

Last year, a government source told the paper that three survey vessels with links to China were identified trying to work in Japan’s territorial waters.

A Japanese coastguard ship sprays a fishing boat from North Korea that strayed into its exclusive economic zone. Photo: Reuters

In one case in April, a survey vessel that belonged to a Chinese marine survey institution was commissioned by a Japanese company to carry out research off Akita Prefecture, in the far north of Japan, ostensibly to determine the suitability of the area for offshore wind turbines. In the other two cases, a Hong Kong-based company working for a Japanese contractor tried to carry out surveys off the Izu Peninsula, southwest of Tokyo, and Kagoshima Prefecture, in southern Japan, for a wind farm and for the laying of submarine cables.

In each case, the presence of suspicious ships and crews in nearby ports was reported to the authorities and the surveying work was halted. It is possible that other similar attempts were not detected and were successful.

“It is very difficult to say precisely what sort of information they might have been seeking so close to Japan, but for the East China Sea it may have been gas resources or to locate data cables,” said James Brown, an associate professor of international relations at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

“But this does bring to mind the Russian case, in which it was claimed that Russian ships and submarines were seeking to locate sub-sea communications cables and to tap into those data cables,” he told the South China Morning Post.

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Claims of espionage could prove embarrassing so close to the long-heralded visit to Japan by Xi Jinping this spring.

“Stories like this could put Japan in a very difficult position,” Brown said. “It could strengthen calls for the visit to be cancelled, which is completely counter to the wishes of the Shinzo Abe administration.

“The prime minister is looking for a diplomatic achievement from Xi’s visit, but there are some who want Japan to take a more hardline position to China and are opposed to Abe’s approach,” he said.

If either side started pointing fingers, Abe would be required to either play down the issue or push back, Brown said, adding that the prime minister would almost certainly prefer to avoid the issue entirely.

The Japanese government is drawing up a national economic security strategy, which will be completed by the end of the year, that will call on the public and private sectors to work together to ensure that other countries are not able to obtain data that would be of military use. Companies that carry out maritime research will be required to report on the owner of the vessel, the data that is being gathered and where it will be shared to the National Security Secretariat, the police and the Public Security Intelligence Agency.

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