The government is sending 100 Ground Self-Defense Force members and radar to its western-most outpost, a tropical island off Taiwan, in a deployment that risks angering China with ties between Asia’s biggest economies already hurt by a dispute over nearby islets they both claim.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera will break ground Saturday for a military lookout station on the Okinawa island of Yonaguni, which is home to 1,500 people and just 150 km from the disputed Japanese-held Senkaku Islands claimed by China.
The mini-militarization of Yonaguni — now defended by two police officers — is part of a long-standing plan to improve defense and surveillance in Japan’s far-flung frontier.
Building the radar base on the island, which is much closer to China than to Japan’s main islands, could extend Japanese monitoring to the Chinese mainland and track Chinese ships and aircraft circling the disputed islets, which China calls Diaoyu.
“We decided to deploy a Ground Self-Defense Force unit on Yonaguni Island as a part of our effort to strengthen the surveillance over the southwestern region,” Onodera said this week. “We are staunchly determined to protect Yonaguni Island, a part of the precious Japanese territory.”
The 30 sq. km backwater — known for strong rice liquor, cattle, sugar cane and scuba diving — may seem an unlikely place for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to put boots on the ground.
But Yonaguni marks the confluence of the defense establishment’s concerns about the vulnerability of the country’s thousands of islands and the perceived threat from China.
The new base “should give Japan the ability to expand surveillance to near the Chinese mainland,” said Heigo Sato, a professor at Takushoku University and a former researcher at the Defense Ministry’s National Institute for Defense Studies.
“It will allow early warning of missiles and supplement the monitoring of Chinese military movements.”
Japan does not specify an enemy when discussing its strategy to defend its remote islands. But it makes no secret that it perceives China generally as a threat — a giant flexing its growing muscle and becoming an Asian military power to rival Japan’s ally, the United States, in the region.
In National Defense Program Guidelines issued in December, Japan expressed “great concern” over China’s rapid military buildup, opaque security goals, its “attempts to change the status quo by coercion” in the sea and air, and such “dangerous activities” as last year’s announcement of an air defense identification zone that encompasses the Senkakus.
Japan’s remote-island strategy, set out in the guidelines, is to “intercept and defeat any invasion by securing maritime supremacy and air superiority” with swift deployments supplementing troops positioned in advance.
“Should any remote islands be invaded, Japan will recapture them. In doing so, any ballistic missile or cruise missile attacks will be dealt with appropriately.”
Yonaguni is practically within sight of the disputed rocks that are the feared flash point of Japan’s island strategy, which could draw the United States into a fight.
Onodera’s groundbreaking ceremony comes four days before President Barack Obama arrives in Tokyo for a summit with Abe, the first state visit by a U.S. president in 18 years.
Japanese and Chinese navy and coast guard ships have played high-stakes cat and mouse around the disputed islets since Japan nationalized the formerly privately owned territory in September 2012. Japanese fighter jets scrambled against Chinese planes a record 415 times in the year through to March, up 36 percent from the previous year, the Defense Ministry said last week.
Tapping such concerns, Abe raised military spending last fiscal year for the first time in 11 years.
He is bolstering Japan’s capability to fight for islands with a new marine unit, more longer-range aircraft, amphibious assault vehicles and helicopter carriers. Although the country’s landmass is smaller than California, its thousands of islands give it nearly 30,000 km of coastline to defend.
Tight fiscal constraints, however, mean Japan can’t keep pace with China’s yearly double-digit military budget increases.
The people of Yonaguni, where Abe wants to station the 100 service members and perhaps as many family members within two years, have mixed feelings about their imminent role in facing off against China.
“Opinion is split down the middle,” Tetsuo Funamichi, the head of the island’s branch of the Japan Agricultural Association, said by telephone. “It’s good for the economy if they come, but some people worry that we could be attacked in an emergency.”
Takenori Komine, who works in an island government office, said it was a risk worth taking if it meant reviving an outpost of Japan that has been in decline since a brief postwar boom.
At that time, U.S.-occupied Yonaguni’s proximity to Taiwan made it an entry point into Japan for smuggled food and clothing from Hong Kong. Since the end of World War II, the island’s population has withered by some 90 percent. Average income of about $22,500 a year is a fifth below the national average.
“We are hopeful that the arrival of the young troops will bolster local consumption,” Komine said.
But Yonaguni’s mainstays, beef and sugarcane, are in the cross hairs of trade negotiations. Abe is trying to defend Japan’s high tariffs on them but has recently agreed to beef tariff cuts for Australia and is under strong pressure to do the same for the United States before Obama’s visit, as part of broad talks on an ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.
“If the TPP includes sugar, this island is finished,” said Funamichi of the agricultural co-op.
And a sharply falling population on Yonaguni would have security implications, a government official said.
“It’s not good from the perspective of securing our territory,” said the official in Tokyo. “If people don’t live there, you could lose your claim to effective control.”
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