Photo : Japan Coast Guard's vessel crashes with a Chinese vessel at Senkaku. Provided by Hitoshi Nakama, Ishigaki city council member
Many foreign journalists often visit Ishigaki City in Okinawa Prefecture hoping to cover the increasingly tense situation on the Senkaku Islands, Japanese islands which lie near China’s territorial waters. The Senkakus are an administrative district of Ishigaki City. Ishigaki is also home to the headquarters of the Yaeyama Nippo newspaper, so I have had occasion to exchange views with several journalists who have been in the area to cover Senkaku developments. It has been painful for me to find that almost no one overseas has any understanding of the true nature of the Senkaku issue.
The journalists’ most common question is why Japan and China are both prepared to shed blood over a few uninhabited islands and reefs. Even when told that Japan and China are competing to secure the surrounding fishing-industry and sub-seabed resources, some journalists respond that it would be better for Japan and China to work peacefully to develop the area jointly, solving problems through discussion as they arise.
As a local reporter familiar with the situation, I respond that the Senkaku issue is not just a contest over some uninhabited islands and reefs. For China, the usurpation of the Senkakus represents a milestone in their steady advance into the Pacific, moving ultimately toward a showdown with the United States.
Beginning in approximately 2011, Chinese public vessels have been relentlessly and repeatedly invading the Japanese waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands.
In May of 2013, I boarded a Japanese fishing boat bound for the Senkakus and environs. While in the area, we encountered several Chinese private vessels which were invading Japanese territorial waters. The fishing boat on which I was a passenger was tiny, perhaps five tons or so, while the Chinese vessels were massive ships of several thousand tons. Despite this vast difference in size, the Chinese vessels approached within just a few yards of our fishing boat, making as though aiming to ram us with their prows. A Japanese Coast Guard patrol boat maneuvered between our fishing boat and the Chinese ships, barely managing to protect us from the Chinese vessels’ ramming attempts.
Had the Japanese Coast Guard patrol boat not been there, our fishing boat may very well have been rammed and sunk by the Chinese vessels. Had we survived, we may have been bound and taken to China. I directly experienced Chinese violence, which was willing to stop at nothing in order to usurp Japan’s territorial rights to the Senkaku Islands.
The Chinese media refer to the Yaeyama Islands, which include the Senkakus, as the “Chinese navy’s passageway to advancing into the Pacific Ocean”. Some American military officials point out that if China subjugates the Senkaku Islands, then what is happening now in the South China Sea will be repeated on the Senkakus—that is, the Senkaku Islands will also be turned into Chinese military bases.
Ishigaki Island, home to some 50,000 people, lies 140 kilometers to the south of the Senkaku Islands. If the Senkakus become a Chinese military base, then the Chinese military will be able to launch a blitz attack against Ishigaki Island at any time. And if Ishigaki is occupied, then the next target will be Okinawa, which lies just 400 km beyond Ishigaki. Okinawa is host to a concentration of US military installations—if China destroys these, then dominion over the Pacific is theirs for the taking.
For China, then, the Senkakus are simply the first domino that must fall along the way to extending hegemony into the Pacific Ocean. A China-controlled Pacific would be a tremendous threat to the rest of the world.
Furthermore, “shared development” with China will mean that China is free to brazenly enter Japanese waters around Senkaku—and not only with private vessels, but also with military ships. For the citizens of Ishigaki, who from generation to generation have fished the Senkakus, “shared development” with China is utterly out of the question.
An American journalist who, like me, boarded a Japanese fishing boat and set out to see the Senkaku situation for himself returned and said, “China’s unilateral actions cannot be tolerated.” Of all the foreigners that I have met, he was the only one who openly criticized China.
Other foreign journalists have all expressed disbelief when told about what China is doing, saying they have never heard of such things and shaking their heads at what they seem to think is a made-up story before cutting off the conversation with me and walking away. Another American journalist once asked me, “Japan has an outstanding naval force. They could drive out the Chinese public vessels easily, so why don’t they? If it was the United States, those vessels would be driven away immediately.”
The incursions into Japanese waters by private Chinese vessels are now being regularized, occurring at a pace of around three times per month.
On any given day, there are three to four ships lurking in Chinese waters off the Senkakus. The Chinese are coming to take the Senkakus by force—so why isn’t Japan using force to repulse them? This is a question that occurs naturally to Americans, who have the strongest military in the world.
I explain to the Americans, “Japan’s constitution contains Article 9, which stipulates that military force is to be used only in self-defense. Japan is absolutely forbidden to counterattack unless another country mounts a military attack against Japan first.”
China clearly understands this. They use, not warships, but private vessels to provoke, night and day, the Japan Coast Guard patrol boats in the waters off the Senkaku Islands. They are waging a war of attrition. The Japanese constitution limits what Japan can do, which consequently emboldens the Chinese. When I tell Americans this, not a single person says, “Aha, I see!” Instead, their faces take on a dubious expression—at which point I feel anew the frustration that comes with the Japanese constitution, which is so entirely out of step with common sense.
The Japanese government has changed positions and has now adopted a policy of not allowing journalists to ride along on fishing boats. China, for its part, has unilaterally included the Senkaku airspace within China’s air defense identification zone, meaning that it is prepared to shoot down any aircraft that flies into that airspace without giving China prior warning. The Japanese media are thus prevented from approaching the Senkakus either by sea or by air. There is almost no way to report on what is going on in the area—as such, there is a nearly complete media blackout on the current Senkaku situation.
When I exchange views with foreign journalists in Ishigaki City, almost all of them emphasize that they were neutral on the Senkaku issue. Even if the situation has not escalated into a military confrontation, I cannot describe this kind of uncritical attitude toward one country trying to take another country’s territory by force of arms as anything other than cowardice masquerading as neutrality.
If we sit by and do nothing, then in the future we will no longer be able to enjoy living in easy peace on this island as we do today. The whole world may also meet the same fate if it sits by and watches China invade other countries’ territory.
Makoto Nakashinjo is the editor-in-chief of the Yaeyama Nippo, a local newspaper in Okinawa Prefecture
(Related: Japan Needs a Policy for the Senkakus by Robert D. Eldridge)