Japan is sending 100 soldiers and radar equipment to its westernmost 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 islands they both claim.
Japanese Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera is to break ground today for a military lookout station on Yonaguni, which is home to 1,500 people and just 150km from disputed Japanese-held islands claimed by Taiwan and China.
The mini-militarization of Yonaguni — now defended by two police officers — is part of a longstanding 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 crags, called the Senkakus by Japan and the Diaoyutais (釣魚台) by Taiwan.
“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 30km2 backwater — known for strong rice liquor, cattle, sugarcane and scuba diving — may seem an unlikely place for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to put boots on the ground.
However, Yonaguni marks the confluence of the Japanese 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,” Sato said.
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 US, in the region.
Japan, in National Defense Program Guidelines issued in December, 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.
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,” the guidelines say.
Yonaguni, at the western tip of Japan’s 3,300km southwestern island chain, is practically within sight of the disputed rocks that are the feared flashpoint of Japan’s island strategy, which could draw the US into a fight.
Onodera’s groundbreaking ceremony comes four days before US President Barack Obama lands in Tokyo for a summit with Abe, the first state visit by a US president in 18 years.