Published: November 8, 2013
Miyako Island, usually known as Japan’s best beach and snorkelling holiday destination, is now on the front line of the increasingly militarised confrontation with China as Tokyo orders the deployment of anti-ship missiles to the island.
The deployment comes after weeks of aggressive naval and air force exercises by China, incursions by Chinese Coast Guard vessels into Japanese territorial waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands, and bellicose statements from both Beijing and Tokyo.
Late last month Japan threatened to shoot down any unmanned drone aircraft China flies through air space over the Senkakus Islands, which China calls the Diaoyu.
In response, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Defence said attacks on any of its surveillance drones would be “a severe provocation” amounting to “an act of war.”
Last week China accused Japan of interfering with exercises by the People’s Liberation Army Navy in the Western Pacific by tailing its fleet with warships and aircraft.
Japan denied the allegation. A senior government official said “Japan is conducting warning and surveillance activities in the surrounding waters appropriately.”
Japan is now in the middle of its own 18-day military exercise, involving 34,000 troops, six warships and 360 aircraft. Significantly, the theme of the exercise is the recapture of an invaded island.
The deployment by Japan of two Type-88 missiles on Miyako and four more 300 kilometres to the north east on Okinawa is a significant symbolic gesture by Japan, indicating it is in a strong position to thwart China’s naval ambitions.
The Miyako Strait between the island and Okinawa is the only international sea-lane through Japan’s Ryukyu Island chain, of which both Miyako and Okinawa are a part.
In recent years Beijing has sent more and more warships through the Miyako Strait and more and more military aircraft through the air space above, which is China’s only route to the Pacific which does not involve going through Japanese or disputed territory.
Japan has made it public that the anti-ship missiles now on Miyako and Okinawa are not operational. However, the truck-mounted Type-88 missiles, similar to the U.S. Harpoon anti-ship missiles with which Canada’s Halifax Class frigates are armed, have a range of over 150 kilometres.
Tokyo’s message to Beijing is that Japan has the ability to close the gateway to the Pacific for China’s navy if it wishes.
The increasingly dangerous chest-thumping stems from what Beijing sees as American-led efforts to contain China and stop its newly minted modern navy from projecting power across the Pacific and beyond.
Beijing sees the so-called “first island chain” off its coast of American allies Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines as a fence intended to restrict China’s free use of the seas.
For several years Beijing’s strategic policy in the East China Sea appears to be aimed at breaking this barrier.
It has achieved some success in its blandishments toward the government of President Ma Ying-jeou in Taiwan, which Beijing says is a rebel province that should be part of China. After five years or so of luring Ma to the negotiating table with economic tid-bits, Beijing is now demanding talks on the island’s sovereignty, much to the disgust of Taiwan’s 23 million people, 93 per cent of whom want to retain their independence.
However, the seduction of Ma has raised questions about how vigorously Taiwan’s military would be instructed to defend the island should China invade, and how strong an obligation the United States would feel to rush to Taiwan’s defence.
Despite this, China’s occupation of Taiwan is not an immediate prospect. Beijing’s most vigorous campaign at the moment is to dispute Japan’s possession of the five uninhabited Senkaku Islands.
Japan has possessed the islands since 1895. Beijing’s claim is a modern fiction concocted after scientists raised the possibility of substantial submarine oil and gas reserves around the islands in 1961.
Beijing began in the early 1970s to alter its maps, all of which had previously shown the Senkakus as Japanese possessions, to claim them as disputed territory.
Added to the lust for energy reserves has been Beijing’s fomenting of strident nationalism as a way of diverting public attention away from the failings and increasing lack of legitimacy in power of the Communist Party.
Much of this nationalism is aimed at vilifying Japan for its invasion of China in the 1930s and 1940s. A major industry for China’s propagandists is maintaining that Japan has not adequately apologised for the abuses of its invasion and colonial rule, and that the Japanese remain militarists at heart.
Chinese fishing trawlers have taken in recent years to working in the waters of Japan’s United Nations-mandated 200 nautical mile (370 kilometres) exclusive economic zone around the Senkakus, and even intruding on Japan’s 12 nautical mile (22 kilometres) territorial waters.
It was during one such intrusion in 2010 that the Chinese fishing vessel the Minyinju is alleged to have rammed two Japanese Coast Guard cutters. The captain, Zhan Qixiong, was arrested by the Japanese, but after Beijing mounted a major diplomatic protest, including the closing down of the export of rare earth metals on which many of Japan’s and the world’s high tech manufacturing industries depend, he was released.
Beijing – and many Japanese – judged Tokyo’s response to the Chinese pushing and shoving to be weak-kneed. That has changed with the election in December last year of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has taken a much more blunt and confrontational approach to Beijing than his immediate predecessors.
He is trying to amend Japan’s pacifist post-war constitution to remove restrictions on how and where the government can order the deployment of its armed forces.
This is in part in response to urgings from Washington that Japan take greater responsibility for its own defence, but also a reaction to uncertainty, shared by many countries, about how dependable a military ally the U.S. is at the moment.
Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe