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Politics & Security

Senkaku Islands: Japan Must Become Self-Sufficient in Its Defense

China is a threat to Japan’s very existence, and Japan cannot get through the looming security crises by clinging to the passive diplomatic stance it has followed for so many years.

Yoshiko Sakurai, Japan Institute for National Fundamentals

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Armed Chinese government vessels threaten Japanese territorial waters and the Senkaku Islands, Ishigaki City, Okinawa Prefecture.

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On February 23, United States Defense Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters, “We hold with the international community about the Senkakus and the sovereignty of the Senkakus, and we support Japan obviously in that sovereignty.” The statement, which referred to the islands in Ishigaki City, Okinawa Prefecture, attracted a lot of attention.

On February 26, Kirby backtracked, saying that his statement had been in “error” and that, in principle, in international affairs, each nation must look to itself for defense of its sovereign territory. However, as things now stand, Japan is clearly dependent on the United States for the defense of the Senkaku Islands. 

If the United States government says that the defense of the Senkakus is covered by Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. defense treaty, that brings peace of mind to Japan’s government and media. However, it is shameful that our mood should swing from joy to grief, depending on the latest pronouncement emanating from Washington D.C.

It is time for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and other political leaders to change their perspective. Why not stop acknowledging U.S. statements about Article 5 every time they are made, and instead explain to the people of Japan just how abnormal the stance of the government and Japanese people have been, so that they will wake up to the reality that is staring them in the face? 

On February 25, the government announced that, in the event vessels belonging to the China’s Coast Guard approached the Senkaku Islands and its forces attempted to land, that would be considered a “violent crime,” and Japan’s Coast Guard would be authorized to immediately open fire with its weapons in response. 

RELATED: [Speaking Out] Japan Should Proactively Counter China Coast Guard Law

Up until now, if a Chinese Coast Guard vessel entered Japan’s territorial waters or contiguous zone, the Japanese Coast Guard would first issue a warning, then order it to leave. If those measures did not work, it could approach and forcefully stop the vessel from proceeding on course. If firearms were employed, the idea was to hit the ship’s hull without harming the crew. 

RELATED: China Rapidly Dwarfing Japan in Naval Power, Would Establish Superiority in a Senkakus Showdown

The latest government explanation gives the impression that henceforth the Japanese side will not yield an inch, and that now there is a legal basis for using its weapons against an illegally intruding ship and its crew.

Diet member Masahisa Sato, director of the Foreign Affairs Division of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), noted, “This is the first time that we’ve actually announced that we could do this.”

It seems previously such use of force was authorized, but had not been publicly announced. That is a typical expression of the prevailing pacifistic mentality that nothing was to be done, let things be, we should absolutely not resort to military measures and should keep Japan’s military at arms’ length. The government has announced for the first time that armed force may be used if necessary, but that alone will not be a deterrent to China. 

China is coming to take the Senkakus. That is the cold, stark truth.

RELATED: U.S. Naval Expert Warns: China Is Coming for the Senkaku Islands

Beijing has already factored in the likely response from Japan’s Coast Guard. That is readily apparent from the fact that it revised its Coast Guard Law, so that the Chinese Coast Guard — which, in fact, is merely a wing of the People’s Liberation Army Navy — will be able to attack with full force from both the sea and air. 

The fact is that Japan pretends to have a Coast Guard, but it is virtually unprepared to deal with the Chinese Coast Guard, which is fully equipped by the Chinese government for full-scale military operations. 

Even though it has been announced that Japan’s Coast Guard can use weapons, its responses are still tightly restrained by the Constitution and legal requirements imposed by the Police Duties Execution Law. The Maritime Self-Defense Force too will not be able to respond adequately to an armed attack by China. Many experts believe that, under current conditions, the Senkaku Islands cannot be protected. 

In order to avoid this worst-case situation, the LDP has begun discussing various countermeasures, such as the adoption of a “Territorial Security Law.” But, so far, the Prime Minister’s Office has been quite slow to react. Is Prime Minister Suga even aware that Japan faces the greatest threat to its territorial integrity since the end of World War II?

The National Security Council (NSC), which is intended to debate grand strategy for the nation’s defense, has met 11 times during the first five months of the Suga administration. Yet, its longest meeting lasted only 34 minutes, with the shortest being a mere eight minutes, seven minutes (twice), and six minutes, respectively. 

The length of these NSC meetings offer no indication whatsoever that Prime Minister Suga, who after all is ultimately responsible for the nation’s defense, is even aware of the gravity of the current situation.

The greatest threat facing Japan and the entire world is in one word: China. It is the source of all of Japan’s defense and security problems. Unless the Suga administration takes national security seriously, Japan’s existence is precarious. Taking COVID-19 countermeasures and securing supplies of vaccines are without a doubt extremely important. But, will there be a country?

On the one hand, for 50 years since 1969, China has claimed sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, so its current conduct should come as no surprise. 

On the other hand, during that same period, Japan has done virtually nothing to defend the Senkakus. It established a small-scale SDF presence to protect the entire Nansei Shoto island chain running from the southern tip of Kyushu to near Taiwan. But that is quite inadequate, and it is a wildly optimistic exercise to think that such a weak force posture is sufficient to ensure the nation’s defense.

It is an inherent responsibility of the government to make sure the Japanese public is fully aware of the current dangerous situation in the Senkakus. The Japanese people need to be aroused from their sweet dream that we can leave the security of the Senkakus to the United States. Now is the time to change the situation, so we will be ready to respond if the situation further deteriorates.

It is the role of the government and political leaders to publicly flag this danger. Nevertheless, the Suga administration seems to have little interest in security matters. Yet, any misunderstanding in this respect runs counter to the national interest. The seriousness of the problem needs to be acknowledged.  

Now is the time for Japan to take the initiative to advance its own national interests, as we keep a careful watch on the direction of the U.S. Biden administration. 

China has already launched its post-COVID diplomatic offensive. It is rewarding countries that adopt the IT systems offered by its national champion Huawei with an eye to making them permanently dependent on Beijing. It is also continuing its “debt trap” diplomacy. 

Beijing seeks to win allies among dictatorial regimes by touting “non-interference in domestic politics,” and thereby expanding its influence. 

RELATED: China Installs Influence Operators in Diplomatic Posts, Foreign Lawmaking Bodies

It is also working at a breakneck pace to establish a China-centric semiconductor production supply chain. Needless to say, it is also greatly expanding its military power. 

However, China can be contained if Japan strengthens its international ties. The British government has expressed strong interest in joining the Quad arrangement of Japan, the United States, Australia and India, as well as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade group. 

Britain, France, and Germany all hope to cooperate in the Indo-Pacific and South China Sea. It is time for Japan to stand up and push back, while calling for the active participation of the Biden administration, which talks loudly about multilateral diplomacy.

Japan cannot get through the looming security crises by clinging to the passive diplomatic stance it has followed for so many years. In every sense, Japan needs to take a more positive stance. 

The starting point should be the establishment of a clear posture as a self-reliant nation state, including through revision of the Constitution, so that we can move forward. 

Prime Minister Suga, it is your duty to tell the nation’s people the facts. Let the Japanese people know that Japan can no longer accept an abnormal situation in which the nation remains dependent on another country. 

(Read the Sankei Seiron article in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Yoshiko Sakurai