The China Coast Guard has put into operation its expanded fleet of around 150 vessels, with the refitting of around 20 vessels transferred from the country's navy almost completed, according to sources familiar with the matter.

With each ship weighing at least 1,000 gross tons, the Chinese coast guard now has more than twice the 70 large patrol vessels possessed by the Japan Coast Guard.

Photos obtained by Kyodo News confirmed a fleet of Chinese maritime patrol vessels, including some equipped with the same naval artillery seen on warships, anchored in eastern China's Zhejiang Province in late January.

Photo obtained by Kyodo News shows Chinese coast guard ships docked in eastern China's Zhejiang Province in late January, 2023. (Kyodo)

It has been two years since China decided to allow its coast guard to use weapons when foreign ships involved in illegal activities in Chinese-claimed waters do not obey orders.

With the Chinese coast guard increasingly resembling a second navy, there are concerns that Sino-Japanese tensions over the Senkaku Islands, administered by Tokyo, could further escalate.

Chinese ships have repeatedly intruded into Japanese territorial waters around the uninhabited islets that Beijing claims and calls Diaoyu.

According to the obtained photographs, a total of nine vessels were moored in late January at a wharf in Zhoushan, Zhejiang Province, where the construction and refitting of coast guard vessels are being conducted.

The photos showed crew members moving about on deck and inspecting equipment, as well as several people in camouflage uniforms bringing in supplies.

While China does not disclose the number of its coast guard vessels, the Japan Coast Guard estimates the fleet totaled around 132 vessels as of December 2021.

According to the sources, around 20 vessels have since been added to the fleet since undergoing refurbishment, bringing to total to around 150. The ships have already been deployed for surveillance and training, the sources said.

Late last November, a Chinese coast guard vessel equipped with a 76-millimeter cannon -- the largest ever seen on such a ship -- entered Japan's territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands. The ship was also seen moored at a wharf in Zhoushan.

The Japanese government has become increasingly alarmed about the expansion of China's coast guard, and plans to strengthen security around the Senkakus by including the construction of three large patrol vessels in the supplementary budget for fiscal 2022.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in his policy speech last month also announced the deepening of cooperation between the Japan's coast guard and the Maritime Self-Defense Force.

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