Japan So Far Has No Response to Growing Chinese Threats to Japanese Islands

February 12, 2021 Updated: February 14, 2021


Chinese decision-makers and national security experts must be delighted by Japan’s failure to respond in any meaningful way to the decision by the regime in Beijing to allow its Coast Guard to “fire upon vessels around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.”

Japan’s failure to come up with an answer to China’s Coast Guard ships now in Japan’s territorial waters in the Senkaku Islands could well lead to China’s occupation of all or part of the Senkakus.

If China, in fact, goes ahead and moves military and occupation forces into all or part of the Senkakus, it would replicate what it previously carried out in the South China Sea.

China claims sovereignty over the Senkakus, but as with its claims to the islands and reefs in the South China Sea, these claims aren’t recognized by any other state.

Under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between Japan and the United States, the parties agreed “that the United States should maintain armed forces on its own in and about Japan so as to deter an armed attack upon Japan.”

Thus, the United States can act in Japan’s stead, although the United States almost certainly wouldn’t do that unless asked by Japan to do so.

Last November, the United States and Japan conducted exercise Keen Sword 21 throughout mainland Japan, Okinawa prefecture, and its surrounding waters. At the time, Lt. Gen. Kevin Schneider, the commander of U.S. forces based in Japan, said the allied force demonstrated “the ability to move a few people” around Japan’s southwestern islands, and this capability “could be used to deploy combat troops to defend the Senkaku Islands.”

However, any decision for U.S. forces to play a role in the Senkakus almost certainly would need Japan’s support.

China has been testing just how far it can go in promoting its Senkaku claim and avoiding a military confrontation with the United States.

Late last November, China made a proposal to “ease tensions” between Japan and China over the Senkaku, suggesting that neither Japanese nor Chinese fishermen be allowed to operate around the Senkakus.

China also proposed that “only government ships” be allowed to sail near the islands to “make sure suspicious boats don’t enter sensitive waters.”

Japan rejected the Chinese proposal, making clear that Japanese fishing boats would continue to operate in Japan’s territorial waters and that China’s proposal would have the effect of compromising Japan’s sovereignty claim.

Even before China decided to allow its Coast Guard ships to “fire upon” other vessels in the Senkakus, China had been sending its Coast Guard ships on a daily basis to patrol the waters Japan says are in its Exclusive Economic Zone. Chinese warships had previously chased away Japanese fishermen operating around Taisho Island in the Senkaku chain. The use of the Chinese Coast Guard instead of the People’s Liberation Army Navy is intended to demonstrate China’s claim of sovereignty.

Japan doesn’t have any military bases in the Senkakus. But on nearby Yonaguni Island, Japan has built a radar and early warning station, which has been operational since 2016. Yonaguni is about 67 nautical miles from Taiwan. The Senkakus are roughly 80 nautical miles north-northeast of Yonaguni. Japan could have put the radar site on one of the southernmost Senkaku islands but decided not to do so, probably so as not to arouse the Chinese.

Japan faces a tough dilemma. Without any immediate means of protecting the Senkakus, all or some of those islands could be occupied by China, either by planting some small “civilian” population or by inserting military forces. The Senkakus aren’t inhabited islands, so China would also have to bring infrastructure, as they did successfully in the South China Sea.

Alternatively, China could use its Coast Guard to chase away Japanese fishermen, as China previously did with its navy.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government seems to be waiting for the other shoe to drop and appears unable to form any policy to respond to growing Chinese threats.

Stephen Bryen is regarded as a thought leader on technology security policy, twice being awarded the Defense Department’s highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Medal. His most recent book is “Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.