Tensions rise between Japan and China as remote island of Yonaguni bolsters defenses

Chinese ships patrol the sea around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, a chain of uninhabited islands also claimed by China and Taiwan, near where Kinjo lives. The islands, known in China as the Diaoyu Islands and the Diaoyutai Islands in Taiwan, have become one of the hotbeds of escalating tensions in the region.

“The prow of one of their ships was pointing straight at us and they were chasing us. I don’t know for sure, but I also saw what looked like cannons,” the 50-year-old fisherman told CNN. described one of several skirmishes with the Chinese Coast Guard over the past few years.

Although the territorial dispute over the rock chain dates back more than a century, China has increased its presence around the islands, especially in recent decades. This raised fears that Beijing would lay claim to the disputed islands.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry told CNN that the Chinese Coast Guard’s patrolling of the waters surrounding the islands was “the proper exercise of China’s sovereign right.” But Japan also claims it has sovereignty over the islands — and is beefing up its military forces on Yonaguni and related islands in the Nansei chain, east of Senkaku.

And all of this is especially worrisome for Yonaguni residents like Kinjo, who worry about China’s intentions.

Their island is just 68 miles (110 km) off the coast of Taiwan, a self-governing democratic island that Beijing also claims as its own, and they fear rising tensions could destroy their peaceful community, especially if Beijing tries to limit access to critical fishing grounds. for their livelihood.

Quiet community with front row seat to tension

Occupied by the US during World War II, Yonaguni was returned to the Japanese in 1972 as part of Okinawa Prefecture, a strip of 150 islands that curves south of Japan’s main islands in the East China Sea. It’s a Japanese city, no doubt, but it’s closer to Taiwan than it is to Tokyo—so close that on a clear day you can make out the faint outline of Taiwan’s mountain ranges from the western cape of Yonaguni.

In the past, Yonaguni’s proximity to Taiwan and China has made the island, which has a population of less than 2,000, a popular tourist destination for divers and hikers. But its location also puts it at the forefront of geopolitical tensions as China ramps up water patrols off the Senkaku Islands and flaunts its military might in the sea and skies near Taiwan.

Twenty years ago, Japan’s Ministry of Defense was seeing fewer than 20 Chinese warships—destroyers and frigates—off its coast every year, but not in the contiguous zone, defined as 24 nautical miles from the coast.

Since then, that number has more than quadrupled and reached a new high of 71 last year. Including Chinese Coast Guard ships, the figure rises to 110, according to the ministry.

China is also increasing its presence in the skies around Taiwan, repeatedly sending combat aircraft to the island’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), prompting Taipei to deploy combat air patrol aircraft, issue radio warnings and activate anti-aircraft missile systems.

Japan also took off fighter jets in response to Chinese aircraft approaching its airspace.

The ruling Communist Party of China has long claimed Taiwan as part of its territory, despite never having ruled over it. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has refused to rule out taking Taiwan by force, a prospect that would not only threaten peace in the region but also pose a threat to Japan’s national security, since 90% of its energy passes through the waters near the island.

In recent weeks, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised alarm in the region, especially as China refuses to bow to international pressure to condemn Moscow’s actions. China has dismissed the comparison between Ukraine and Taiwan, saying that Taiwan is “completely China’s internal affair.” However, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said the island would be following China “very closely” for developments in Ukraine, as would the people of Yonaguni.

“The Russian military invasion of Ukraine made me think about the future of Taiwan and the island of Yonaguni,” said local cafe owner Michiko Furumi. “I am very worried about the future of my grandchildren.”

Café owner Michiko Furumi returned to Yonaguni seven years ago and worries about the future of the island.

When Kinjo started fishing 25 years ago, he never saw Chinese ships in Senkaku, but in the last few years he has had a growing number of dangerous encounters. “I was intercepted with great force. Sometimes I would go there and they would bypass me and I would avoid them because it was dangerous and then they would bypass me again,” he said.

Kinjo is worried that China’s claim to the Senkaku Islands and its ambition to take over Taiwan may one day extend to Yonaguni. “Looking at the current actions of China, I have a strong feeling of crisis that this island will eventually cease to be Japan.”

Japan expands its defensive forces

As fears grow, the remote island where Kinjou and Furumi live changes.

In response to the perceived threat from Beijing, Tokyo opened a Japan Self-Defense Force camp on Yonaguni in 2016 with about 160 troops to monitor the coast.

This month, the Japanese Air Force moved a mobile radar team from Miyakojima to the island to monitor Chinese activities in the area more closely.

In 2019, Japan opened new military bases on Yonaguni’s sister islands, Amami Oshima and Miyakojima, and equipped them with medium-range surface-to-air guided missiles and Type 12 short-range surface-to-ship guided missiles.

A fourth base is under construction on Ishigaki Island, east of Yonaguni, and will start operating from March 2023, Japan Self-Defense Force officials said. The new base will house about 600 military personnel, as well as medium and short-range missile systems.

General Yoshihide Yoshida, chief of staff of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF), told CNN that additional defensive capabilities are needed to send a strong signal to territorial rivals.

“We must protect the territorial sovereignty of our country at any cost. And we need to send a signal that we will stand firm in our country’s defense,” he said.

Despite Japan’s recent attempts to bolster its defenses, Yoko Iwama, a foreign affairs and security expert at the National Institute for Policy Studies, said the country was vulnerable.

“We don’t have longer (shock) opportunities and we definitely need them. What, how much, we should start discussing, but it is quite clear that what we currently have is not enough, ”she said.

Japan’s current missile defense systems can only hit an incoming target when it is within range of about 31 miles (50 kilometers), according to Self-Defense Force officials. But China, for example, has missiles that can be launched from various warplanes from up to 186 miles (300 kilometers) away.

Japan’s post-war constitution limits it to defensive actions, but Prime Minister Fumio Kishida says the government is exploring options to give the country the ability to strike bases in enemy territory as part of its self-defense.

Fears for the future

Back on Yonaguni, the transition from a sleepy island to a strategically important defensive outpost doesn’t make all of its inhabitants feel any more secure. Innkeeper Fumio Kano says she feels more vulnerable.

“Growing up, my grandparents taught me that having a military facility makes you a target for attack,” she said. “I do not agree that military installations are being built on the islands.”

Shigenori Takenishi, head of the local fishing cooperative, says he is concerned about rising tensions that could affect the trade in fish marks.

But Shigenori Takenishi, head of the Yonaguni fishing cooperative, says there’s too much at stake to risk. “We need to increase our defense capabilities, including the Japan Self-Defense Force, but this alone will not be enough to protect Japan,” he said.

“I believe that the only way to do this is to work closely with the United States in accordance with the Japan-US Security Treaty Law and further strengthen Japan’s own defense capabilities.”

The US says the Senkaku are covered by the US-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty, which obliges Washington to defend them like any other part of Japanese territory. US President Joe Biden also said the US would defend Taiwan if necessary, although the White House said the US had not changed its “strategic ambiguity” policy.

Takenishi says that if China blocks access to the fishing waters around Senacakusa, Yonaguni fishermen will lose their livelihood and the entire island will suffer.

Fisherman Kinjo agrees. “If the Senkaku Islands no longer belong to Japan, the territorial waters will become smaller, and since Japan is surrounded by the sea, it will become a matter of life and death,” he said.

However, Kinjo says he has no choice but to look down at Chinese Coast Guard ships every time he sets out to sea. “Even if I do what I find scary, I still have to go offshore to make a living. I can’t stop working. I just do my job day in and day out,” he said.

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