Japan’s southwest territories being militarised amid rising fears of rising superpower China
Islands have long been buffeted by shifts in geopolitical balance of power
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe inspects a Japanese coast guard patrol vessel on the Japanese southwestern island of Ishigaki. Photograph: Reuters/Kyodo
Lush and sleepy, the sub-tropical island of Ishigaki shows little sign of preparing for war with Asia’s rising superpower China. Dotted with sugar cane fields and surrounded by coral reefs, the 85 square-mile Pacific speck hovers on the far fringes of Japan’s southwest territories, more than 1,600km from Tokyo. Tourists stroll around the bright new airport. The atmosphere across the island and its population of 48,000 is gently welcoming and relaxed. And that, says Makoto Nakashinjo bitterly, is the problem.
“We’ve been at peace for so many years that people here are complacent,” says Mr Nakashinjo, who edits a local, right-leaning newspaper. He believes an increasingly assertive China, less than 200km away, is picking a fight with Japan.
“They’re waiting for our strength to weaken and then they will come in an take us over. The central government must show now that we are strong and can defend ourselves.”
Shinzo Abe became the first sitting prime minister to visit Ishigaki in more than 40 years recently when he gave a barely coded warning to Beijing that Japan “would not give an inch” over its jurisdiction. Tellingly, the venue Mr Abe picked to deliver his speech was aboard one of the fleet of coastguard vessels crowding Ishigaki harbour. The boats have been sent to protect a group of goat-infested, uninhabited rocks known here as the Senkakus, about 170km away.
For more than nine months, the coast guard has played cat and mouse with ever-larger surveillance ships from China, which calls the islands Daioyu and insists they’re Chinese. Occasionally the two sides have come dangerously close to clashing.
“Escalation is always possible,” warns Tetsuo Kotani, a maritime affairs expert with the Japan Institute of International Affairs, a government-linked think tank. He calls the situation around the disputed islands “very scary”.
“A clash would be a huge diplomatic crisis. We just don’t know how the escalation will start.” War, he warns, “cannot be ruled out”.
Chinese government ships have made more than 50 incursions into Japanese waters since the dispute began. The US Senate committee on foreign relations last month condemned this high stakes poker game, urging “self-restraint” but warning that Washington will oppose “any unilateral action” undermining Japan’s claim. Many fear that the US, which exercises technical jurisdiction over three of the five Senkaku islands, could be dragged into a conflict between the world’s number two and three economic powers.
Historically and culturally close to China (and Taiwan), these islands, stretching over 1,000km up to Okinawa, have long been buffeted by shifts in the geopolitical balance of power. In the 19th century, they were annexed by Japan as it flexed its maritime muscles. Japan’s ambitions to become a colonial power in Asia ended in cataclysm: During the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, more than 120,000 locals, mostly on the main Okinawa island, died in what many here believe was a cynical attempt by Tokyo to stall a US invasion of the Japanese mainland.
Extensively bombed during the war, many on Ishigaki remain wary of any military entanglement. A bilingual monument on the island marks one of the more brutal local episodes from the war: two US airmen, shot down by the Japanese navy, were tortured, beaten and beheaded. A third was used as bayonet practice with bamboo spears by a local mob.