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Japan-China Island Spat Threatens GSDF Deployment and Much More

May. 1, 2013 - 09:00AM   |  
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TOKYO — An effort by Japan to put boots on the ground and install a radar monitoring station on one of its islands could be derailed by a few hundred islanders as the country’s new administration tries to provide a more muscular, in-your-face defense posture to China.

Things had been going well with the deployment, which involves building a barracks for a garrison of 100 to 200 Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) troops in the center of Yonaguni Island with a coastal monitoring facility and a mobile radar unit on its eastern tip by 2015. Both sides agreed to the move after negotiations that began in June 2009 when islanders invited the Defense Ministry to Yonaguni in the hope of bringing more money to the tiny local economy. The island, closer to Taiwan than the Japanese mainland, has 1,600 residents.

Things changed March 20, when local Mayor Shukichi Hokama suddenly presented the MoD with a sudden extra ¥1 billion (US $10 million) demand for a “nuisance payment” to compensate local land­owners for the deployment.

The standoff gained national attention a week later when Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera publicly threatened to pull the plug on the deployment, a threat reiterated by MoD spokesman Takaaki Ohno to Defense News. Ohno said the MoD fails to see the validity of the claim, adding that it breaks prior agreements. “The MoD will continue to negotiate positively with the islanders, but if we do not see any progress, we will have no choice but to review the plan, including whether to deploy the troops on the island,” he said.

While the dispute might seem like a very minor typhoon in a Japanese teacup, there is a lot more at stake than money, according to analysts.

Gavan McCormack, emeritus professor and visiting fellow, Division of Pacific and Asian History at the Australian National University, said the recent ratcheting up of tensions between Japan and China has caused massive fissures on the island between some who want investment in the tiny community’s decaying economy and those who say the move puts the hitherto largely ignored island right in China’s crosshairs.

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When a small plurality of islanders supported moves to invite the MoD in 2008, diplomatic relations between Japan and China were better. But the escalation of territorial disputes between the two neighbors over ownership of the Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu Islands by China) just north of Yonaguni, has cooled the GSDF’s welcome in the eyes of many, he said.

Yonaguni is only 67 miles off of Taiwan, placing it “straight onto a Chinese missile target list, to be wiped out immediately” if hostilities ever break out between the two countries, McCormack said.

That split has left Hokama, the mayor, in a difficult situation, McCormack said, because while Hokama originally supported the GSDF deployment for its perceived economic boost, recent growing opposition may now affect his chances of re-election.

The Yonaguni issue has become symbolically and strategically important. Since assuming power late last year, the Abe administration has been the first Japanese government in 11 years to raise defense spending, albeit only by 0.8 percent.

Beefing up Japan’s ability to defend its island chain and deter potential Chinese aggression is now a strategic priority. ■

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