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Chinese warships sail around Japan as tensions rise ahead of G7 summit

By Brad Lendon and Junko Ogura, CNN

A Chinese naval flotilla led by a powerful destroyer has been on a 12-day circumnavigation of Japan’s main islands in a display of military power as tensions simmer over Taiwan and as Japan prepares to host G7 leaders next week.

Japan’s Defense Ministry on Thursday released a map showing the Type 055 guided missile destroyer Lhasa, one of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s most powerful warships, leading a four-ship flotilla that also included a smaller destroyer, a frigate and a supply ship on the clockwise circumnavigation.

The Japanese map shows the voyage began April 30 in the Tsushima Strait between South Korea and Japan, progressed through the Tsugaru Strait at the northern tip of Hokkaido on May 5 and 6 and then was in the Izu island chain south of Tokyo on Thursday.

In a story published after the Japanese Defense Ministry release Thursday, China’s state-run Global Times linked the flotilla’s journey to “Japan’s recent provocative remarks” about Taiwan, the democratically ruled island over which the Chinese Communist Party claims sovereignty despite never having ruled it.

“While the voyage is likely a routine PLA Navy far sea exercise that does not violate any international law or target any third party, it could be seen as a strong message to Japan,” the Global Times report said, citing Chinese experts.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in an interview with Nikkei Asia on Wednesday that “the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait is critical not just for our country, but for the whole international community.”

And Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi on Wednesday said Tokyo had sent a message of protest to Beijing over comments by China’s ambassador that Japan would be “dragged into the fire” if Tokyo linked Taiwan to its own security.

In an exclusive interview with CNN on Wednesday, Hayashi said Japan is in talks to open a NATO liaison office — the first of its kind in Asia — saying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had repercussions far beyond Europe’s borders that had forced Tokyo to rethink regional security.

“We are already in discussions, but no details (have been) finalized yet,” Hayashi said.

Tensions rise before G7 summit

The Chinese circumnavigation also comes as leaders of the Group of Seven prepare to meet in Japan beginning May 19.

Chinese naval flotillas have performed circumnavigations of Japan in the past — most notably when a Chinese-Russian flotilla of 10 ships did so in October 2021 — and analysts say more can be expected as the PLA Navy more frequently flexes its muscles outside China’s nearby waters.

But the timing and route of this exercise linked with the media reports raises concerns, the analysts say.

“What is most troubling is that by linking the PLAN surface action group’s route selection to Kishida’s comments on Taiwan, China’s state media is seeking to make it into a show of force,” said John Bradford, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratman School of International Studies in Singapore.

“Delivering these sorts of threats further undermines confidence and drives up regional tensions,” he added.

James Brown, professor of political science at Temple University in Japan, said the timing of the Chinese naval activity before the G7 summit in Hiroshima is important.

“While much of the focus in Hiroshima will be on Ukraine, the Japanese hosts will seek to link the issue to security in East Asia,” Brown said.

“Prime Minister Kishida is likely to reiterate his message that ‘Ukraine today could be East Asia tomorrow.’ By ‘East Asia,’ he means the prospect of China attacking Taiwan,” Brown said.

“The Chinese show of force is intended to deter Japan from deepening security cooperation with the United States and other Western partners. It is likely to achieve the opposite,” he said.

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