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  • Japan’s Coast Guard and Maritime Self-Defense Force in the East China Sea:Can a Black-and-White System Adapt to a Gray-Zone Reality?
  • Céline Pajon (bio)



This essay examines the need for growing coordination between the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) to better cope with gray-zone situations.


Coping with gray-zone situations is particularly challenging for Japan because its security posture is based on a binary system that complicates coordination between civilian and military agencies. In Japan, gray-zone situations generally refer to the challenges raised by China’s maritime activities around the disputed Senkaku Islands, creating situations that are neither peacetime nor wartime contingencies. Dealing with such situations requires careful and close management of law-enforcement contingencies that might escalate into military conflicts. Japan’s unique security system has so far prevented the adoption of a legal framework to regulate the coordination between the civilian JCG, which is primarily responsible for securing national waters, and the military JMSDF, which intervenes if a situation worsens. Despite some progress, legal and technical issues still prevent optimal cooperation between the two agencies, thus undermining Japan’s ability to respond to current challenges in the East China Sea.


  • • Because Japan has a binary security system that strictly divides civilian and military corps and activities, the country will struggle to adapt its institutions to China’s “salami slicing” strategy.

  • • Ensuring a well-integrated response to gray-zone situations would ideally require a legal framework defining more precisely these situations and articulating the respective roles of the JMSDF and JCG. If such a framework is not possible, other steps should be taken, such as expanding technical interoperability between the JMSDF and JCG; developing a common, integrated maritime domain awareness; and increasing training and exercises on more realistic scenarios.

  • • To improve its current security posture, Japan must implement a “whole of government” approach that ensures optimal coordination between civilian and military agencies rather than revising Article 9 of the constitution. [End Page 112]

On August 6, 2016, an armada of 230 Chinese fishing boats, accompanied by 7 China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels, was spotted near Japanese waters around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.1 This could have been the starting point of a nightmare scenario for Japan in which the disputed islands are taken by armed Chinese fishermen backed by big CCG ships and eventually military vessels, leaving no chance for the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) to adequately reply. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) would then need to step in, with the risk of the situation escalating into a military conflict.

Coping with “gray zone” situations, such as the above scenario, has been Japan’s core security challenge in recent years. Defined in the National Defense Program Guidelines of December 2013 as “neither pure peacetime nor contingencies over territory, sovereignty and maritime economic interests,” gray-zone situations mainly refer to the challenges raised by China’s “reactive assertiveness” around the disputed Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese).2 Beijing is challenging Japan’s sovereign control by regularly sending vessels from law-enforcement agencies into its territorial waters and contiguous zone.3 Civilian or paramilitary forces are therefore used to change facts on the ground while pushing the targeted country to eventually take the initiative of using force to stop these activities.

These incursions, which do not amount to an armed attack, are blurring the line between crime and defense, between law enforcement and military activities. Gray-zone situations have been identified by Tokyo since 2010 and have informed the transformation of Japan’s defense posture.4 Japan is organizing a “dynamic joint defense force” and redeploying troops onto the Ryukyu Islands, located in the southwest of the archipelago, closer to the [End Page 113] Senkaku Islands.5 Importantly, official documents call for more cooperation and coordination between the JMSDF, on the one hand, and the JCG and police forces, on the other.6

Indeed, the JCG is the primary agency responsible for patrolling and safeguarding Japanese waters: it...


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pp. 111-130
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