SUGA’S METTLE WILL BE TESTED OVER SENKAKU ISLANDS
China often has a sinister way of getting what it wants by taking advantage of turmoil in the world. The best time to attack in Beijing’s view is when its targets are unable to cope with a sudden change of circumstances.
Beijing now sees the US in that situation following its presidential election. As the whole world anxiously watches the world’s strongest democracy struggling to get back on its feet, America’s ability to cope effectively with any provocative act on the part of China appears low under present circumstances. The possibility is higher than ever before that China will try to put its hands on the Senkaku Islands—a cluster of small uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that it has persistently been plotting to wrest away from Japan.
Professor Yoshihiko Yamada of Tokai University, a maritime expert well versed in disputes over remote islands, sees the crisis facing the Senkakus as “more imminent than ever before,” explaining:
“China has already completed legal and military preparations for taking the Senkakus. If the Japanese government should sit idly by, the day we will lose our territorial islands is close at hand.”
Late last month, significant amendments in the 1997 National Defense Law were presented at the National People’s Congress (NPC). One clause states: “When China’s sovereignty or development interests are under threat, we shall conduct nationwide or local defense mobilization as necessary.” Another states: “China’s national interests around the world shall be stringently protected.” The amendments are a declaration that China will wage war when it feels its territorial, security, or economic interests are threatened anywhere in the world.
The proposed revision is menacing to the rest of the world to the extent that any interpretation in Beijing’s favor is possible. The NPC further announced a new law aimed at granting the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) permission, effective November 25, to use weapons to protect the sovereignty of its “jurisdictional waters” against foreign entities or individuals. The new law allows all CCG personnel, ships, and aircraft to be armed with weapons and take all necessary measures whenever seen appropriate.
In a nutshell, the law allows all CCG departments to use weapons when foreign ships “engage in illicit acts” in what China claims as its territorial waters. In light of the ongoing confrontation between Japan and China over the waters off the Senkakus, the law is tantamount to a proclamation from China that it is ready for an all-out war against Japan over the islands.
China, which claims the Senkakus as its territory, regards as a violation of its sovereignty the monitoring activities the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) conducts in the area, and views as illegal any orders for Chinese ships to leave.
“Only Use of Force Will Work”
The revised laws are self-serving and will not stand up to any international scrutiny, but the Chinese will try to use these laws to legitimize their use of weapons against Japanese ships. Should Japan Maritime Self-Defense vessels standing behind JCG patrol boats intervene, the Chinese will launch an aerial attack, citing the new laws as the basis for their action. The Chinese are going all out to forcefully create a new world order based on their self-centered values. Commented China expert Akio Yaita:
“What will happen if Beijing should inform Tokyo that China will launch an attack on JCG ships and Japanese fishing boats unless they pull back from the Senkaku area? Will Japan be able to endure the possibility of likely deaths and injuries aboard JCG vessels or fishing boats? If the government should decide that Japan could not possibly contend with China in such a confrontation, I fear that our ships would have to pull back. That would lead to China taking possession of the Senkakus without the use of force but by merely threatening Japan with its laws.”
It has been a while since CCG ships began violating Japanese waters off the Senkakus, ignoring repeated warnings to back away. But opposition members of the Diet have nonchalantly chosen to neglect these incidents, infatuated instead with quibbling over an insignificant controversy involving the Science Council of Japan. Meanwhile, the government has kept reiterating, like a boring sermon at a temple, that it is: “continuing to take a keen interest in the moves the Chinese Coast Guard makes” and is “exercising proper control over the Senkaku area, which beyond a shadow of a doubt is our indigenous territory—historically and under international law.” No wonder Japanese politicians are taken “lightly” by China in every sense of the word.
Mayor Yoshitaka Nakayama of Ishigaki City, Okinawa Prefecture, made a strong appeal for definitive action on the part of the government, warning:
“Chinese patrol and fishing boats have repeatedly been violating our territorial waters over the past few months. If the ongoing confusion in the US lingers on, I fear China will be emboldened to take advantage of the situation. Should Chinese vessels fire on our fishing boats in Japanese waters, our legitimate claim to the Senkakus will instantly vanish into thin air. What we must do to avoid that situation is crystal clear: We must absolutely never allow Chinese patrol boats to enter our territorial waters in that region.”
To prevent CCG ships from entering Japanese waters, Nakayama says they should be encircled with a significant number of JCG patrol boats. But the problem with this is that the JCG, with a fleet of only 66 ships—including a dozen 1,000-ton vessels, its largest—would be absolutely overwhelmed by a Chinese fleet of 130 ships, the bulk of which are in effect battleships—5,000-ton class ships equipped with 77mm large cannons.
While the difference of force has widened, eight of the dozen 1,000-ton JCG patrol boats are at sea round the clock to monitor four much larger CCG ships that refuse to leave the Japanese waters. The four remaining JCG patrol ships are on standby. Professor Yamada warned that an extremely tough situation prevails in the region today, explaining:
“Taking advantage of this weakness in Japan’s security framework around the Senkakus, China has deployed patrol boats in the waters off two of the eight Senkaku Islands—Taishojima and Uotsurijima. This has led the JCG to deploy four of its smaller patrol boats in that area. As a result, the JCG cannot spare any of its ships or personnel even for a single day.”
The JCG simply does not have enough ships to encircle Chinese patrol boats off the Senkakus. Nakayama stressed:
“The only solution would be for Japanese personnel to be posted on Uotsurijima, the biggest of the islands, in order to prevent the Chinese from going ashore. We have long been urging the government to implement this. As regards Uotsurijima, the City of Ishigaki has specifically asked the government to 1) survey the environment; 2) provide regular maintenance of the lighthouse; 3) build a wireless relay station; and 4) post personnel. A sizable number of Japanese must go ashore, live, and work there, resorting to force as necessary in order to secure the islands.”
Needed: Power to Defend Our Territory
Nakayama’s pathetic appeal hits one hard. A similar appeal for government action also came from Hirokazu Bando, acting councilor of the Ogi branch of the Fisheries Cooperative of Ishikawa Prefecture, which borders on the Japan Sea. Bando expounds on the harsh reality of Japan having effectively been deprived of one of its richest fisheries grounds by Chinese and North Korean fishing boats.
“On September 30, the government urged fishermen in our region to ‘voluntarily’ refrain from operating in a wide expanse of the Japan Sea, centering around the Yamatotai fishing area, which is rich in flying squid. In effect, it was an order. The government wanted us to avoid clashing with fishermen from China. We grudgingly complied. As a result, all of the fishermen are in the red because we missed the peak period of squid fishing.”
Roughly 80% of the restrictions were eased by the end of last month, prompting the fishermen to rush back to Yamatotai only to come across a stunning scene, according to Bando.
“Several hundred Chinese fishing boats were operating there, including 1,000-ton class vessels,” said Bando. “Under Japanese law, we are allowed to use only small fishing boats under 199 tons to catch squid. Absolutely outnumbered and overwhelmed, there was no way for our boats to get in there and do their own fishing, and so they returned to port empty-handed.”
Something similar happened in the same area last year. On August 23, 2019, a North Korean ship pointed a gun at a JCG patrol ship, demanding that it leave the area immediately. Alarmed, the Fisheries Agency asked fisheries cooperatives in Ishikawa Prefecture to voluntarily refrain from operating in the area. Instead of cracking down on foreign ships for operating illegally in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, a weak-kneed Japanese government called on Japanese fishermen to suspend operations there. The purported reason was that the Agency was ill-equipped to go after so large a number of foreign vessels, and that the JCG had its hands full in the Senkakus.
Japan sadly lacks the power to defend its own territorial waters around the Senkakus and the Sea of Japan. Relying on the US Navy would be one way to protect these seas, but it is time for Japan to act more independently. What is at stake now is whether Japan has the mettle to stand on its own feet in defending its own territory—air, land, or sea. It is precisely our degree of commitment to our own defense that China is now testing. Prime Minister Suga—I am calling on you to show China that we do indeed have the mettle to make that commitment. I’m calling on you to build the framework that will enable Japan to defend its territory on its own—by force when necessary.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 926 in the November 19, 2020 issue of The Weekly Shincho)