Remote island ramps up defenses as tensions between Japan and China mount


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

“The bow of one of their ships was pointed straight at us and they were chasing us. I’m not sure, but I also saw something that looked like cannons,” the 50-year-old fisherman told CNN, describing one of the many encounters with the Chinese Coast Guard in recent years.

Although the territorial dispute over the rock chain goes back more than a century, China has increased its presence around the islands, especially in recent decades. That has led to fears that Beijing will exercise its claims on the disputed islands.

China’s Foreign Ministry told CNN that China’s Coast Guard patrols around the waters around the islands were “an appropriate exercise of China’s sovereign right.” But Japan also claims that it has sovereign rights over the islands — and is bolstering its forces on Yonaguni and its sister islands in the Nansei chain, east of the Senkakus.

And all of this is of particular concern to Yonaguni residents like Kinjo, who are concerned about China’s intentions.

Their island is just 70 miles off the coast of Taiwan, the self-ruled, democratic island of Beijing also claims it is its own, and they fear mounting tensions could disrupt their peaceful community, especially if Beijing tries to restrict access to fishing grounds. that are vital to their livelihoods.

Quiet community with a front row seat to thrills

Yonaguni was occupied by the US during World War II and was returned to the Japanese in 1972 as part of Okinawa Prefecture, the group of 150 islands that curves south from Japan’s main islands in the East China Sea. It’s no doubt Japanese, but it’s closer to Taiwan than Tokyo — so close that on a clear day you can see 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, home to fewer than 2,000 people, a popular tourist destination for divers and hikers. But its location also puts it at the forefront of geopolitical tensions as China ramps up its patrols in the waters off the Senkaku Islands and shows its military might in the sea and air off Taiwan.

Twenty years ago, Japan’s Defense Ministry saw fewer than 20 Chinese warships — destroyers and frigates — each year from shore, but not within the contiguous zone, defined as within 24 nautical miles of shore.

Since then, the number has more than quadrupled to a new record of 71 last year. Including ships from the Chinese coast guard, the number rises to 110, according to the ministry.

China is also expanding its air presence around Taiwan, repeatedly sending combat aircraft into the island’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), prompting Taipei to deploy combat patrol aircraft, issue radio alerts and activate air defense missile systems.

Japan has also mixed up fighter jets in response to Chinese planes approaching its airspace.

China’s ruling Communist Party has long claimed Taiwan as part of its territory, although it has never ruled it. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has refused to take Taiwan by force — a prospect that would not only threaten peace in the region but also pose a national security risk to Japan, as 90% of its energy flows through waters near the island. island flows.

In recent weeks, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put the region on edge, especially as China refuses to bow to international pressure to condemn Moscow’s actions. China has rejected comparisons between Ukraine and Taiwan, arguing that Taiwan is “wholly China’s internal affair”. However, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said the island will monitor China “very carefully” as events unfold in Ukraine — and so will the residents of Yonaguni.

“Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine has left me concerned about the future of Taiwan and Yonaguni Island,” said local cafe owner Michiko Furumi. “I’m really worried about the future of my grandchildren.”

Café owner Michiko Furumi moved back to Yonaguni seven years ago and worries about the island's future.

When Kinjo started fishing 25 years ago, he had never seen Chinese ships in the Senkakus, but in recent years he has had a growing number of what felt like dangerous encounters. “I was intercepted with great force. Sometimes I would go there and they would go around me, and I would dodge them because it was dangerous, and then they would go around me again,” he said.

Kinjo is concerned that China’s claims to the Senkaku Islands and its ambitions to take Taiwan will one day extend to Yonaguni. “Looking at China’s current moves, I have a strong sense of crisis that this island will eventually cease to be Japan.”

Japan expands its defensive forces

As fears mount, the remote island where Kinjo and Furumi live changes.

In response to the perceived threat from Beijing, Tokyo opened a Japan Self-Defense Force camp on Yonaguni in 2016, staffed by about 160 troops conducting coastal surveillance.

This month, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force moved a mobile radar unit from Miyakojima to the island to more closely monitor Chinese activity in the area.

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-air guided missiles.

A fourth base is under construction on Ishigaki Island, east of Yonaguni, and will be operational from March 2023, according to Japanese self-defense force officials. The new base will be home to approximately 600 troops and both medium and short-range missile systems.

Gene. Yoshihide Yoshida, the chief of staff for Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF), told CNN the additional defense capability was needed to send a strong signal to territorial rivals.

“We must protect the territorial sovereignty of our country at all costs. And we must convey our message that we will firmly defend our country,” he said.

Despite Japan’s recent efforts to bolster its defenses, Yoko Iwama, an international relations and security expert at the National Graduate Institute of Policy Studies, said the country is vulnerable.

“We don’t have longer (attack) capabilities, and we definitely need them. Which, how much, we need to discuss, but it’s very clear that what we have at the moment is not enough,” she said.

According to Self-Defense Force officials, Japan’s current missile defense systems cannot attack an incoming target until it comes within range of about 50 kilometers. But China, for example, has missiles that can be launched from a wide range of combat aircraft at distances of up to 186 miles (300 kilometers).

Japan’s post-war constitution limits it to defensive action, but Prime Minister Fumio Kishida says the government is exploring options to give the country the ability to attack bases on an adversary’s territory as part of its self-defense.

Fear of the future

Back on Yonaguni, the transition from a sleepy island to a strategically important defensive outpost doesn’t make all residents feel any safer. Innkeeper Fumio Kano says she at least feels more vulnerable.

“My grandparents taught me as a child that the presence of a military facility makes you a target for attack,” she said. “I do not agree that military facilities are being built on the islands.”

Shigenori Takenishi, head of the local fisheries cooperative, says he fears rising tensions could affect the fish trade.

But Shigenori Takenishi, the head of the Yonaguni fisheries cooperative, says there is too much at stake to take any risks. “We need to increase our defense capabilities, including the Japanese self-defense forces, but that alone will not be enough to protect Japan,” he said.

“I believe the only way to do this is to work closely with the US under the Japan-US Security Treaty Act and to expand Japan’s own defense capabilities much further.”

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 has also said the US would protect Taiwan if necessary, although the White House said the US had not changed its policy of “strategic ambiguity”.

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

Visser Kinjo agrees. “If the Senkaku Islands are no longer in Japan, the territorial waters will shrink, and since Japan is surrounded by sea, it will be a matter of life and death,” he said.

Still, Kinjo says he has little choice but to keep an eye on China’s coast guard ships when he goes out to sea. “Even if I do what I find scary, I still have to go offshore to live. I can’t stop working. I just do my job day in, day out,” he said.

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