US AND JAPAN MUST SWIFTLY START JOINT MILITARY DRILLS ON SENKAKU ISLANDS
With only a few days of the Olympics remaining, viewers continue to be busy watching competition in sports ranging from table tennis and gymnastics to swimming and track and field. I have been particularly moved by Japanese swimming star and leukemia survivor Rikako Ikee who cried loudly as she and her women’s 400-meter medley relay teammates threw themselves into each other’s arms after wrapping up their final race on July 31. Minutes later, Rikako told reporters with a bright smile that she was “very happy and fortunate” to have been able to compete in Tokyo this summer, capping a miraculous comeback from the disease that struck her in early 2017. I will remember these moving scenes for many years to come.
While the whole of Japan is bubbling with excitement over the Games, the chasm continues to widen between China and the free world. China constantly lies in wait to catch its counterparts off balance—in the same way as it did by conducting its first nuclear test while Japan was hosting Asia’s first Olympics in 1964. On July 30, I invited three former top Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) officers as guests to my weekly “Genron” Internet TV news show to discuss the Senkaku Islands and Taiwan, both faced with imminent threats from China.
The trio was Kiyofumi Iwata, former Chief of Staff, Ground JSDF; Kunio Oda, former Lt. General, Air JSDF; and Tetsuro Domoto, former Vice Admiral, Maritime JSDF. As well-respected military experts, they unanimously voiced deep concern about the governments of Japan and Taiwan having completely fallen into the snare of China’s strategy over Taiwan and the Senkakus.
As for the Senkakus, Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) patrol boats under the umbrella of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are daily violating the Japanese territorial waters around the uninhibited islands that Japan has been administering since 1985. Patrol boats of the Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) on the scene have repeatedly demanded over a microphone that the Chinese ships leave immediately, but to no avail. Every time a CCG patrol boat violates the Senkaku waters, the most the Japanese government does is express “deep regret,” reminding Beijing that Japan holds the exclusive administrative rights over the eight islands. But Beijing couldn’t care less.
I suspect that some in the international community may have already come to see the Senkakus as under joint Japanese and Chinese jurisdiction. Over the years, Tokyo has asserted that “no territorial problem” exists over the Islands. Unfortunately, in the more than decade since Chinese patrol boats started their violations a territorial problem has in fact developed over the Senkakus. Obviously, Beijing’s international campaign to publicize its claim to sovereignty over the Senkakus has born fruit.
The situation Taiwan is faced with is far more precarious than Japan with its Senkaku problem. Should Taiwan be left to cope with the Chinese threats by itself, its fate will “hang by a thread,” asserts Iwata, pointing out:
“Taiwan’s plight is most conspicuous in its air defense. In October 2020, its air force chief of staff announced that Taiwan scrambled its jet fighters a total of 4,596 times between January and October against Chinese aircraft infiltrating its air space. This excessive number of scrambles has put Taiwan under severe strain.”
“Taiwan Has Given up”
This amounted to a daily average of almost 15 scrambles. Chinese and Russian aircraft have also been approaching Japanese air space with increasing frequency. Over the last five years, JASDF jet fighters have been scrambled an annual average of 625 times—up to two times a day—against potentially hostile aircraft.
Even if jet fighters are scrambled once or twice daily, it still is a huge burden on pilots—and the JASDF itself as well—to be ready around the clock to intercept aircraft approaching our air space. But the Taiwanese Air Force had to be ready for a daily average of 15 scrambles as the PLA put pressure by sending its aircraft into Taiwan’s air space with demonic persistence. What did Taiwan decide to do then? Explained Iwata:
“The air force found the situation unendurable, as it took a heavy mental and physical toll on its pilots, who were under constant tension preparing for emergency take-offs. The air force was unable to sustain the enormous financial pressure to keep its aircraft in impeccable condition all the time. Fuel costs were not insignificant. Consequently, they grudgingly concluded that they had no choice but to stop scrambling against Chinese planes.”
What are the military implications of this obviously difficult decision by the Taiwanese authorities? Oda had this to say:
“Taiwan virtually gave up on taking crucial countermeasures against peace-time infiltrations of its air space by Chinese aircraft. As a result, it has become impossible to train young Taiwanese pilots. Now pilots are not ordered to scramble their jet fighters for fear of possible accidents and huge maintenance costs. To put it bluntly, it means Taiwan’s ‘defeat.’”
Peacetime air sovereignty is absolute and exclusive under international law, as past incidents amply demonstrate. In November 2011, for example, Turkey shot down a Russian jet fighter for violating its air space near the Syria-Turkey border. At the time, Turkey and Russia were not at war and were enjoying normal relations. But Russian military planes started violating the Turkish air space after starting to bomb Syria. After issuing ten warnings over a period of five minutes unsuccessfully, Turkey shot down the Russian aircraft.
The Turkish action infuriated Putin, but the incident was resolved seven months later when Turkey formally apologized to Moscow. There was no retaliation from either Russia or the international community because Turkey’s action was based on international law.
“Air sovereignty is a crucial part of the absolute rights that international law guarantees universally,” Oda pointed out. “A nation that fails to protect its own air space can hardly be viewed as sovereign. If Taiwan views itself as a sovereign state, I strongly feel that it should resume scrambling its jet fighters against Chinese aircraft no matter how burdening it may be at this juncture.”
I assume that Oda has these harsh things to say about Taiwan’s air defense because he is painfully aware of the importance of a nation protecting its air sovereignty. As a JASDF jet fighter pilot, Oda performed his mission of protecting the skies over Japan for 35 long years, frequently scrambling to intercept potentially hostile aircraft. All the PLA warplanes approaching Japanese air space were equipped with missiles, and so was his jet fighter. If deprived of its air space, Japan will have no chance to cope effectively with Chinese threats. All the more reason for us to strictly bear Oda’s message in mind. After all, he himself flew a missile-equipped jet fighter as a top JASDF pilot, doggedly performing his duty while firmly keeping his guard up against any contingency and strictly honoring international law.
Needed: Closer US-Japan Military Cooperation
The moment JASDF radar detects Chinese airplanes heading toward the Senkakus, jet fighters are scrambled to beat the Chinese aircraft to the area.
“If we reach the Senkakus before them, the Chinese aren’t going to be able to infiltrate our air space,” asserted Oda.
During the summit in Washington in April, the US and Japan pledged to work closer together to ensure the peace and stability of the Strait of Taiwan. Should it seize control of Taiwan, China undoubtedly will turn the strait into its own inland sea, similar to what the Seto Inland Sea is to Japan. It will no longer be possible for Japanese tankers and freighters to freely pass through the strait. Free access to the South China Sea will also be severely restricted, thrusting Japan into serious economic difficulties. We must regard Taiwan, the Senkakus, Okinawa, and the rest of Japan as “all in one.”
As is evident from the situations in the Crimea Peninsula and the South China Sea, the nation that occupies a foreign territory first is the effective winner. The victimized nation and the international community will initially raise objections but inevitably will fall into silence. All the occupying nation should has to do is accumulate a record of effective control of the occupied territory. That is why nations should never allow their territories to be wrested away in the first place.
China is reluctant to throw the first punch at the Senkakus now because it does not wish to make trouble with the US. But it may be a different story in an emergency in which US forces may not immediately be available to aid the JSDF in defending the islands. What to do then? First and foremost, we must demonstrate to China the power of unity and cooperation between the two Pacific allies. One way to show our combined strength, I believe, would be for US and Japanese forces to utilize Kubashima, one of the eight Senkaku Islands, as a joint training ground.
Kubashima is a flat island with no tall mountains and an area of 0.91 square-kilometer (0.35 square mile). The US military had used this island for military drills until 1978, suspending them then because Washington was going to normalize its relations with Beijing in January the following year.
Tokyo should persuade Washington to lift the suspension of its drills at an early stage. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has committed Japan to the peace and security of the Taiwan Strait, should then also be able to live up to his international pledge to safeguard the security of the Senkakus by demonstrating a stronger bond between the armed forces of our two nations. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 962 in the combined August 12-19 issue of The Weekly Shincho)