TOKYO — With a high-profile groundbreaking ceremony for a small radar station on Yonaguni Island, Japan has drawn a line in the sand about its strategic intent to defend its Nansei Shoto (southwestern island chain) against China, effectively telling Beijing to back off.
The deployment of the “coastal observation unit,” as the Defense Ministry here calls it, will see the deployment of only about 100 troops on a 60-acre site during 2015. But the April 19 groundbreaking ceremony, which included Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, was the top news in newspapers and for the state broadcaster, quite an event for the 11-square-mile subtropical island, population 1,500, hitherto known for its sugar cane production and scuba diving.
Politics and positioning are behind the fanfare for the event, said Masaaki Gabe, professor of international relations and director of the International Institute for Okinawan Studies at the University of the Ryukyus. Yonaguni is only 67 miles east of Taiwan and 93 miles south of the Senkaku Islands, a major source of friction between Japan and China.
Planting boots on an island at the very extremity of Japanese territory — effectively China’s backyard — makes great public relations domestically for the nationalist administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, serving notice of Japan’s determination to push back against China, he said.
“The radar base [set up] by the Ground Self-Defense Forces [GSDF] is not strategically military important now, but politically, it’s extremely important to the Abe administration,” he said.
New Base, New Strategy
Gabe said it’s the first move in a new regional chess game that would see Japan quietly strengthen its presence there. In fact, the deployment has become the leading edge of a new surveillance strategy, focusing more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities on the region.
In addition to the new base, the MoD is reorganizing its airborne early warning (AEW) group to provide what the ministry calls “unceasing and continuous warning and surveillance in the southwest region.”
It is also establishing a second AEW group at Naha Base on the main island of Okinawa, according to ministry budget documents. Thus, the prospect of soon-to-be-dug bunkers on Yonaguni has already ruffled the feathers of China, which regards the base as more evidence of growing Japanese militarism.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying has called for Japan to give a “serious explanation for its real intention of building military muscle in the … region.”
Zhuang Jianzhong, vice director of the Center for National Strategy Studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, was more blunt: “I think it’s one of the provocative moves to strengthening its military, and is aimed at China in preparation for war.”
“This shows that Japan now has considered China as a hypothetical enemy,” said Dong Wang, director, School of International Studies Center for Northeast Asian Strategic Studies, Peking University.
“It is very clear that since Abe came into power, the Japanese government has played up the China threat so as to build domestic support for constitutional reform, on which the Japanese public currently is divided. But I’ll say, whatever Japan does on the Yonaguni Island will not change the broader strategic trend, that is, China’s continuous peaceful rise. To seek a strategic confrontation with China will be among the worst strategy Japan can pursue,” he said.
The move is far from being provocative, said Grant Newsham, a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, based here.
He said an earlier move by Japan to forward-position more forces, on Yonaguni in particular given its proximity to the Senkaku Islands, might have forestalled China’s muscle-flexing in the area. Newsham is a former US Marine Corps liaison to the GSDF.
The current confrontation is focused on the hotly disputed Senkaku Islands, just north of Yonaguni. They are also claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu. They have been subject to repeated incursions by Chinese ships since the islands were nationalized by Japan in September 2012.
Tensions are so high over the islands that on April 24, President Barack Obama, on the first state visit to Japan by an incumbent US president in nearly two decades, stated that the Senkakus are Japanese territory, and the US would defend them against any attack under Article 5 of the US-Japan security treaty.
“Article 5 covers all territories under Japan’s jurisdiction, and this includes the Senkaku Islands,” Obama said during a joint news conference with Abe.
Newsham said the radar base is urgently needed both tactically and strategically, and the presence of only 100 or so troops has strong psychological value.
“Sure, the Chinese will complain. But they complain about everything,” he said. “What’s the alternative? Leave Yonaguni unoccupied and vulnerable? The entire Nansei Shoto region is vulnerable.
“It is unfortunate Japan did not establish its presence in the Nansei Shoto much earlier. Had it done so, the current problems might have been avoided,” he said.
Corey Wallace, a Japan security policy expert at New Zealand’s University of Auckland, said the base has symbolic meaning for Japan’s evolving strategic defense alignment to the southwest.
“The new base will enhance the psychological perception that China’s projection of power into the Pacific is being checked more effectively,” Wallace said. “It will certainly help Japan’s aim to deter conflict by better dealing with ‘gray zone’ contingencies to protect Japan’s own interests.
“It will also help prevent [China’s People’s Liberation Army from] presenting Japan with a fait accompli in any military contingency in the area,” he said.
In addition, the Yonaguni base could become a key piece in the network of monitoring facilities running through the Ryukyu Islands up to Kyushu, one of Japan’s main islands. The GSDF radar will allow the early detection of ships and aircraft while the Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) provides mobile warning radar for aircraft.
“It extends Japan’s monitoring range of Chinese military movements over Japan’s own islands, but also increases the range to close to the Chinese mainland,” Wallace said.
Newsham recommended Japan extend its presence throughout the island chain, in effect visibly and psychologically pushing out its defense perimeter. It should also consider conducting regular exercises and patrols in the area, especially with US forces, he said.
Yonaguni also has an airfield and small ports that the ASDF and Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force might find useful. Later, the island might be equipped with antiship missiles that could make “a long afternoon for an adversary attempting to pass through the first island chain,” Newsham said.
“Being present and able to dominate an area can also prevent an adversary from grabbing it first. If you’re not there, you’re not interested,” Newsham said.
Wendell Minnick in Taipei contributed to this report.