China-Japan frontline sees a ‘cold peace’

A Chinese trawler is flanked by Japanese vessels near Ishigaki, in this file photo.  

From their forward base in Ishigaki, a part of the Okinawa chain of 150 islands, large ships of the Japanese coast guard, all gleaming white, keep a tight round- the-clock vigil on a group of islands, 170 km away.

Their mission is to ensure that Japan maintains its hold over these small but strategically significant islands in the East China Sea. The Japanese call them Senkaku, and designate them as sovereign territory.

According to the Japanese argument, in the late 19th century, about 200 nationals pioneered a settlement in these uninhabited islands. Over there, they established a business of gathering albatross feathers, which were used for making warm clothing. China, they say, contested Japanese sovereignty only after 1968, when a UN body cited the possibility of oil reserves in the area.

On the contrary, China as well as Taiwan point to documentary evidence suggesting that China held the territory before the onset of the First Sino-Japanese War. Consequently, Japan has been accused of seizing this territory, which should be returned, in tune with practice after the Second World War, when imperial Japan gave back captured territories to their original owners.

Analysts say that the intensity of claims by Tokyo and Beijing may also be driven by the significant strategic location of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

Military objective

At the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo, Special Research Fellow Susumu Takai asserts that China’s real military objective is the Miyako strait, and establishing a hold on Senkaku islands would be a step in that direction.

Though in international waters, the 250 km wide passageway between the Miyako and Okinawa islands is seen as a major choke-point through which China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy can channel into the West Pacific, dominated by the U.S. Navy. “China’s real intention is not just to dominate but control the Miyako strait,” observes Mr. Takai.

In anticipation of a worst-case scenario, the Mayor of Ishigaki, Yoshitaka Nakayama, acknowledges that some additional ground troops of the Japan Self Defence Forces (JSDF) have been deployed on the Miyako island. Besides, defences of some other nearby islands such as Yonaguni, which is only 108 km from Taiwan, have been reinforced. Miki Iwao, President of the Ishigaki branch of Yaeyama Defence Association — an organisation that links the Army and civil society — points out that the JSDF needs to plug the military gap between the mainland Kyushu island and the Okinawa island chain.

At the Ishigaki coast guard office, Rear Admiral Hiroyasu Hanai, explains the ground rules, which ensure that a cold peace continues to prevail along the Senkaku/Diaoyu frontline, despite the escalation of Chinese forays in the area since 2012. “When the Chinese coast guard ships intrude into our territorial water, our ships sail alongside them,” he said during a power point presentation aboard one of the ships.

“Both sides then blare their positions on the islands over loudspeakers. On the electronic scroll bar on the side of the ships, the audio message is reinforced in writing,” says Mr. Hanai.

Under the Japanese coast guard protocol, Chinese fishing vessels which enter territorial waters are warned to refrain from further entry. “Chinese fishing boats routinely heed the warning and go away,” the Japanese commander observes.

However, there is zero-tolerance for “political activists” that come aboard boats in the area, to loudly demonstrate Chinese claims over the islands. “There was an incident seven years ago when our ships had to run into the boat full of activists. They were finally chased away with water cannons,” the Admiral said.

(The writer travelled to Ishigaki, Japan, at the invitation of the Japanese Government.)


This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Apr 15, 2021 2:53:50 AM |

Next Story