The navies of both China and Russia dispatched a joint group of 10 vessels to sail through Japan’s Tsugaru Strait — which links the Sea of Japan with the Pacific Ocean — on Monday, Japan’s Defense Ministry said.
The Tsugaru Strait is a passage of international waters just 11.6 miles wide at its narrowest point. The strait separates Japan’s main island of Honshu from its northernmost island of Hokkaido.
“A total of 10 vessels belonging to their [China and Russia’s] navies sailed from the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean,” Japan’s Ministry of Defense said on October 18, as quoted by Kyodo News.
“Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force found destroyers and frigates at around 8:00 a.m. in waters about 110 km [68 miles] southwest of Okushiri Island in Hokkaido,” according to the Defense Ministry.
The sighting marks the first time Tokyo has confirmed Chinese and Russian warships passing through Tsugaru Strait.
Monday’s naval activity by China and Russia did not violate Japanese territorial waters, nor did it break any rules of international law, a Japanese Defense Ministry spokesman said on October 18.
Tokyo is currently “analyzing” Beijing and Moscow’s “intent” for ordering the naval dispatch, according to Kyodo News.
“The government is closely watching Chinese and Russian naval vessels’ activities around Japan like this one with high interest,” Japan’s Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihiko Isozaki, told reporters at a regular press briefing on October 19.
“We will continue to do our utmost in our surveillance activity in waters and airspace around Japan,” he added.
Russia and China’s navies concluded joint drills in the Sea of Japan just 24 hours before Tokyo spotted their vessels passing through Tsugaru Strait on October 18. The two nations carried out the military exercises from October 14 to October 17. The event featured warships and support vessels from the Russian Navy’s Pacific Fleet. Kyodo News on Monday said it was “possible” that some of the Chinese and Russian Navy vessels that sailed through the Tsugaru Strait on October 18 were part of the joint Sea of Japan drills.
Japan is engaged in territorial disputes with both China and Russia over contested islets. Beijing claims Japan’s Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea as its own, referring to them as “Diaoyu.” The rocky, uninhabited islets lie a short distance from Taiwan, also illegally claimed by China. The strategically significant location of the Senkakus — on the cusp of both the East China Sea and the South China Sea — means the islands have become subject to rising geopolitical tensions in the hotly contested area.
Likewise, Japan’s territorial dispute with Russia over the Moscow-administered and Tokyo-claimed Kuril Islands — which form a chain stretching between Hokkaido and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula — has flared up in recent weeks. Tokyo said on September 23 it “cannot accept” Moscow’s newly stated goal of establishing a special “tariff-free” zone on the islands because the act infringes on Japan’s legal position regarding the territory.