In a move that is bound to anger Beijing, the Japan Coast Guard is planning to use soon-to-be-mothballed Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers to bolster patrols around the disputed Senkaku Islands.
Coast guard officials inspected candidate ships in January.
Land and infrastructure minister Akihiro Ota confirmed that plans were moving forward at the end of February during an interview with The Asahi Shimbun.
The plan to use retired MSDF ships to patrol the Senkakus was proposed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in November, just before his Liberal Democratic Party scored a landslide victory in the Dec. 16 Lower House election.
But increasing the coast guard's presence around the disputed islands in the East China Sea is likely to provoke a hostile reaction from China.
"When we receive a present, it's rude if we don't give something back," said China's vice foreign minister Fu Ying at a news conference on March 4, indicating that China sees its own activities in the area as countermeasures against Japan's decision last September to make the Senkakus state property.
Previously, they were under private ownership.
Fu, named press secretary of the National People's Congress that got under way March 5, also stressed that a majority of Chinese believe the government should resort to tougher measures against Japan.
"I want to know whether Japanese leaders understand these opinions of the Chinese people," she said.
China has made repeated incursions into Japanese territorial waters since September, when anti-Japan protests raged in cities across China.
In response, the coast guard plans to set up a special team specifically to deal with the issue by the end of March 2016. It is considering using retired MSDF ships for the time being because the construction of new patrol vessels typically takes three years.
However, differences between the engine structure of destroyers and that of patrol vessels mean the coast guard will need to have MSDF personnel either pilot the ships or train its members to do so.
A crew of 40 or so is needed to pilot one Japan Coast Guard patrol vessel of 3,000 to 4,000 tons.
"We were told by the Defense Ministry, 'We'd like to avoid providing a crew together with the ships,'" said a senior Japan Coast Guard official.
At issue, then, is whether the coast guard can secure crew members independently.
It is believed the coast guard will move forward with its plans as soon as it is able to do so.
The coast guard has currently dispatched its patrol vessels from across the nation to its 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters in Okinawa Prefecture. Because of the vessels' protracted term of dispatch to Okinawa, the 2013 Japan Coast Guard inspection parade was canceled.
The 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters at present has seven patrol vessels of 1,000 tons or more, and plans a step-by-step deployment of 12 large patrol vessels, which will be either newly produced or refurbished.
According to the senior Japan Coast Guard official, the candidate vessels are four ships that will retire from MSDF service by the next year.
Technology officials from the Japan Coast Guard visited the MSDF Yokosuka Naval Base in Kanagawa Prefecture to determine whether they can be used as patrol vessels, the official said.
The candidates are believed to be MSDF's Hatsuyuki series ships whose full load displacement is about 4,000 tons.
According to the Defense Ministry, the four ships have been in service for nearly 30 years. Under ordinary circumstances, they would simply be scrapped or sunk in drills as targets for missiles and torpedoes.
To use them as patrol vessels, the Japan Coast Guard plans to remove unnecessary launching equipment for torpedoes and missiles.By Ryuji Kudo and Fumiaki Sonoyama in Tokyo and Atsushi Okudera in Beijing
The Asahi Shimbun AJW
05 March 2013
Japan Coast Guard cutters keep a close watch on Chinese surveillance ships near the Senkaku Islands in September 2012. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)