PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA – Several news outlets have reported that Japan’s National Police Agency has come up with an interesting request for the 2020 budget: a new unit dedicated to protecting the Senkaku Islands. The budget request suggests that up to 159 new police officers could be assigned to Okinawa along with additional helicopters and weapons for patrolling Japan’s uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
This budget request begs two questions: Why, and why now? The short answers: to counter China’s Senkaku Islands ambition, and because this is the next logical step in the evolution of Japan’s southwest islands defense strategy.
The NPA request comes after the Self-Defense Forces and Japan Coast Guard have already built up their territorial defense resources in Okinawa. Despite this buildup, precedent and China’s inclination to employ “gray zone” tactics around the Senkaku Islands also demands specialized police presence around the Senkakus for law enforcement activities ashore. Heading into the budget approval and implementation process, the administration will now have to weigh this necessity against the challenges of incorporating such a niche capability into existing NPA institutions.
China has increased its activities around the Senkakus in a long-term bid to change the status quo in the East China Sea. While Japan, Taiwan and China all claim sovereignty over the uninhabited islets, they are under sole Japanese administration.
Rather than take the islands by military force, the Chinese government has opted for a measured approach wherein they create a de facto state of co-administration before angling for Chinese sole administration. To do so, the Chinese have employed gray zone tactics, meaning they have acted in ways that avoid clear violation of black-and-white legal interpretations.
Thus far, the focus of those gray zone actions has been Chinese coast guard presence in the waters surrounding the Senkakus, as well as their unilateral policing of Chinese fishing vessels. While policing their own vessels makes sense in Chinese waters, it undermines Japanese administrative authority when preventing the Japan Coast Guard from enforcing laws in Japan’s own territorial waters, contiguous zone and exclusive economic zone.
There is a long-standing concern within the Japanese government and among Northeast Asia watchers that the Chinese government may attempt to escalate its gray zone tactics by actually landing personnel on the islands. In that situation, Tokyo would need to respond quickly, but doing so would present a challenge in coordination and execution.
Both as a function of avoiding escalation and of adhering to domestic law, the SDF is not the first responder for territorial incursions by a nonmilitary entity. Instead, such response demands policing actions left to the NPA and Coast Guard.
In principle, the Coast Guard would police any personnel and assets on water, while the NPA or prefectural police would be deployed to respond to any intruders on land. In practice, that is difficult when responding to incidents on far-flung, uninhabited islands.
Here is an example of how this could play out: A Chinese fishing vessel lands illegally on Uotsuri, one of the Senkaku Islands. The crew makes landfall and plants a Chinese flag. The Chinese government then decides to deploy Chinese coast guard vessels, or worse, naval assets, to remove the fishermen and their vessel.
At that point, there would be a clear case of Chinese nationals landing on the islands, and Chinese officials being the ones to respond to the incident. None of this would be aimed at “invading” the Senkakus but would establish a legal precedent that supports China’s long-term strategy of arguing for co-administration and later sole administration of the islands.
For those skeptical that something like this could happen, there is precedent for Chinese activists landing on the Senkakus. In August 2012, a group of Chinese demonstrators landed on Uotsuri. At the time, the Okinawa Prefectural Police and the Japan Coast Guard had to cobble together a mission to apprehend both the individuals who made landfall and those who remained offshore. While that mission went without any further escalation, what happened in 2012 was not a Chinese government-coordinated intrusion and took place at a time when the Chinese coast guard and military presence was far less frequent in the vicinity of the Senkakus.
That policing action was far from routine for Okinawa-based officials and prompted the Japanese government to enhance its readiness to respond to those types of situations. The Coast Guard steadily increased its budget for “territorial defense” and placed greater emphasis on its activities among Japan’s southwestern islands. The NPA has been slower to follow suit. The police understand their role in these situations and have committed personnel to training events, but institutionalizing this mission set is not as simple as it is for counterpart organizations.
The need is clear. Police officials responding to a territorial incursion require an understanding of the heavily politicized nature of the event. Responses must be measured to avoid escalation, ensure a proper record of the event and maintain professional conduct to keep international support on the Japan side of the situation.
Those officials would also have to be experienced in interagency cooperation. While the NPA has been stepping up its involvement in cross-organizational exercises in recent years, personnel who have a specific mandate for cooperation with the Japan Coast Guard and the SDF are critical. It allows for the relationship-building, normalization of roles and exercise of responsibilities necessary for seamless execution of operations.
The main benefit of a specialized police unit (or at least specialized officials within existing units) is that it closes a gap in Japan’s response to gray zone threats in the East China Sea. Specialized officials bring unique capabilities, maintain continuity and build interagency relationships necessary for responding to complex crises. This enhances readiness and ensures a well-trained, expert group for situations where prudence and precision is critical.
The move also represents a clear step to addressing China’s attempts to change the status quo. There is little Japan can do to prevent China’s gray zone activities in the East China Sea, but the dedication of resources keeps focus on the issue while signaling increased costs for China if it attempts to advance its activities further.
Despite these benefits, the specificity of the mission presents unique challenges in implementation. Response to incursions on remote islands is a niche mission set, requiring exceptional training and resource allocation. The Japanese government will have to decide whether such specific capabilities for its police will be isolated to a single, specialized unit or reflective of a new normal for police organizations elsewhere in the country. Both those options have their pros and cons.
Such a decision is not made in a single budget cycle, but many over time. While the NPA has been incorporated into Japan’s security architecture through the 2013 National Security Strategy and inclusion of NPA officials in the National Security Secretariat, the foundational structure of Japan’s police resources is still evolving. The question of how is still unanswered, and if handled improperly, it could lead to degradation of capabilities in other important functional areas.
The Abe administration has some important considerations in approving and implementing this unique line item in the NPA’s 2020 budget request. There is a demonstrated need for specialized police capability in remote island defense, but how that is adopted and incorporated into the larger framework of Japan’s existing law enforcement institutions will be important to watch.
This next step in the evolution of Japanese security practice will involve growing pains, but for better or worse, the Abe administration has demonstrated its willingness to endure some friction to posture against China’s steadily increasing presence in the East China Sea.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow and is a former officer in the U.S. Air Force.
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