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

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.

Old order shifting
Now the old order is inexorably shifting again as aging, declining Japan struggles to accommodate the rising bulk of its giant neighbour.

Four years ago, then prime minister Yukio Hatoyama floated an ultimately doomed vision of “fraternity” with China. That prospect has been drowned out by a series of disputes over these islands, climaxing with Tokyo’s decision last year to effectively nationalise three of the Senkakus.

That provoked riots in China and a furious response from Beijing, which said both governments had secretly agreed years ago to shelve the territorial issue. Tokyo denies any such deal.

In May, an essay in the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, upped the stakes in the dispute by questioning Japan’s historical right to rule the entire Okinawa chain.

Some on Ishigaki, which has jurisdiction over the Senkakus, say they preferred the status quo to the uncertain new world ushered in by the nationalisation. For years, the local government refused to issue permits to Japanese ultra-nationalists who wanted to land on the island and plant flags.

“The Chinese hardly made a fuss about the Senkakus until last year,” says Hiro Hotta, a local doctor. “People around here have friendly feelings toward China, because of the long history and geographical closeness. There is no animosity toward them at all, only in the heads of nationalists.”

But Ishigaki’s mayor, Yoshitaka Nakayama, has signalled a very different approach to his predecessors, who shied away from any nationalist posturing to avoid provoking either Beijing or Okinawa’s fierce pacifist movement. The potent symbol of that difference is Japan’s rising sun flag, which flutters in front of Ishigaki City Hall for the first time since the war. Mr Nakayama has asked Tokyo to build a self-defence force base on the island. “We think the best deterrent is strength,” says Hidenobu Oe, a spokesman for the city hall.

Tokyo has so far declined to meet that demand, mindful of the likely response from Beijing, which will surely bristle at the further militarisation of the area. A hawkish Tokyo clique, led by Mr Abe, says the door is open to negotiations but refuses to accept any territorial dispute over the Senkakus and demands that China first pull its boats out of the seas around the islands. Before his election last winter, Mr Abe invoked Margaret Thatcher’s retaking of the Falkland Islands in 1982 as an inspiration for defending the Senkakus.

In the tiny nearby island of Yonaguni, however, the hawks have won a quiet victory. On June 20th, the local town assembly authorised the building of a Japanese self-defence base with 100 personnel – the island has just two policemen. An editorial in the Okinawan newspaper Ryukyu Shimbun condemned the decision, saying Tokyo had badgered and bribed locals into building the base, and deliberately destroyed Yonaguni’s dream of “autonomy” and co-operation across national borders with Taiwan and China.

Peace activists from Okinawa’s main island, which still bears the scars of the 1945 battle and reluctantly hosts most of Japan’s American military bases, say they will fight to prevent a base being built on Ishigaki. “It’s obvious that armies don’t bring peace,” says Dr. Hotta. “We should try to build bridges with China rather than military walls.”

The future
In the Ishigaki branch office of the SDF, the commander speaks off the record about the future. Recruitment posters and maps of China and Japan line the walls. A model of the Osprey, an accident-prone US helicopter recently controversially deployed to Okinawa, sits on his desk. Soon, he hopes, Tokyo will green light a military base and quick-response unit on Ishigaki, ready to fly to the Senkakus and outlying islands. He says local fishermen are intimidated out of the Senkaku area by bigger Chinese boats. People won’t say it, but they’re frightened of what will happen without more protection, he says. “The Chinese will never compromise; they’ll keep pushing the boundaries.”

Why does China want the Senkakus?
China’s claims to the Japan-held Diaoyu/Senkaku islets are commonly denounced as a product of its hyper-nationalism and restless search for resources.

There may, however, be another equally plausible reason for the growing brinkmanship in the East China Sea: shrinking

Although the two nations have roughly the same amount of coastline, Japan enjoys a total exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 4.5 million square km in the high seas, five times more than its much bigger and more populous neighbour. And Japan’s maritime domain has vastly
expanded in the last three decades.

Until very recently, the high seas were commonly owned. But since the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was ratified exactly 30 years ago, 162 countries have carved up the oceans into EEZs, giving them special rights to up to 350 nautical miles (650 km) beyond their territorial waters.

Nations such as Britain, France and Japan, with residual territories from far-flung colonial empires have arguably done far better out of this arrangement than China, which ranks between the
Maldives and Somalia
as a territorial maritime power.

Tokyo takes these EEZs very seriously. Consider its jurisdiction of a string of islands extending into the Pacific. At the farthest reaches is Okunotorishima (literally “remote bird island”), almost 2,000km from the capital, roughly the same distance from London, England to Reykjavik, Iceland.

Essentially two coral reefs, the territory shrinks at high tide so that “one is about the size of a double bed and the other a small room,” according to a new paper by Gavan McCormack, emeritus professor at the Australian National University.

Since 1987, he says, Tokyo has invested $600 million in an attempt to shore up the reef and stop it from disappearing under the rising seas.

The rewards are clear: an EEZ attached to a fixed point on the dubiously defined “island” would give Tokyo 400,000 square kilometres and a theoretical maximum of 1.3 million square kilometres – three and a half times the total land area of Japan.

Tokyo’s nationalisation of the Diaoyus/Senkakus, about 1,900km from the capital, should be put in this context.

American and Japanese military plans for the region (the US intends to concentrate 60 percent of its navy
in the Pacific by 2020)
increases the strategic importance of the islets, which are administratively part of the Okinawa chain, host to the heaviest concentration of US military forces in Japan.

Says McCormack: “From the Chinese viewpoint the Okinawan islands resemble nothing so much as a giant maritime Great Wall … potentially blocking naval access to the Pacific Ocean.”

Put like that, this seemingly unintelligible spat in the East China Sea begins to make more sense.