US sails with Japan to flashpoint channel
By Todd Crowell
TOKYO - This month, Japan's Self Defense Forces will hold their first-ever
island defense exercise in concert with the United States military in Japan.
The exercise, which will take place at a base in Kyushu, will simulate the
retaking of one of Japan's small East China Sea islands from "hostile" forces
that seized the island and installed anti-aircraft missiles. Ships from the US
Seventh Fleet, including the aircraft carrier USS George Washington will
Examination of an atlas helps explain the importance of simulation exercises on
the retaking of any of these islands. Stretching more than 1,600 kilometers
from the southern tip of Kyushu through Okinawa and almost as far as Taiwan, is
a string of islands that are all Japanese, although one small group off to
the side, called the Senkaku by the Japanese, is also claimed by China.
There is a crucial gap in this island chain between Okinawa and the Japanese
island of Miyako, wide enough to provide an avenue of international waters
through the island chain - and the principal gateway through which the Chinese
navy can pass on its way to open sea.
Known as the Miyako Channel, this stretch of water is fast becoming one of the
world's most sensitive maritime flashpoints, along with the Strait of Malacca,
the Strait of Hormuz or the Taiwan Strait. It may be even more sensitive than
the Taiwan Strait, since the US and other navies avoid passing through it
unless they are trying to be deliberately provocative.
On the other hand, the Miyako Channel and nearby waters are where the US,
Chinese and Japanese navies grind against one another, sometimes almost
literally. In April, a Chinese flotilla passed through the channel on the way
to open sea. It was shadowed by Japanese destroyers, which in turn were buzzed
by Chinese helicopters, prompting Tokyo to make a formal protest about the
harassment of its ships.
Tokyo is awakening to the fact that the country's southern flank is basically
undefended and open to invasion. Aside from Fortress Okinawa, bristling with
American forces, hardly any Japanese military (or American for that matter) are
currently deployed on any of the islands. At present, there are only about
2,000 Ground Self Defense Force troops on Okinawa and a small air force radar
station on Miyako.
This might be changing. For years, most of Japan's air and ground forces were
deployed on the big northern island of Hokkaido to guard against a Russian
invasion and to support American operations against the Soviet far east. As
that threat has receded with the end of the Cold War, Tokyo has gradually been
redeploying its troops to the west and south.
This may accelerate as Beijing is becoming more aggressive in asserting its
hegemony over nearby waters. All summer and into autumn, hardly a week has gone
by without an announcement of some pending shift in Japan's military resources.
Japan extended its ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone), where by aircraft
entering must identify itself, further south almost to Taiwan. Japan is
considering deploying E2-C early warning aircraft from Misawa in the north to
Naha air base on Okinawa to beef up surveillance of the southern islands. The
navy announced recently it would expand the submarine force to 22 (currently
16, not counting training vessels).
Tokyo is planning to form a special maritime surveillance station composed of
between 100-200 men and place it on Yonaguni island, the farthest west point in
Japan, so close to Taiwan that one can see the distant coastline on a clear
day. The Defense Ministry is thinking of doubling the number of troops on
Okinawa when it updates its basic defense plan at the end of the year.
"Defending strong points in the Sakishima chain [southern-most islands in the
Ryukyu chain] is very important," said Defense Minister Toshima Kitazawa.
The US hasn't ignored the threat in the East China Sea or China's assertiveness
in the South China Sea. In July, three Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines
(SSGNs) surfaced more or less simultaneously at Busan, South Korea, Subic Bay
in the Philippines and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The three are
converted Trident missile submarines, having been stripped of their
intercontinental ballistic missiles and stuffed with Tomahawk cruise missiles -
140 per sub - armed with conventional warheads. Of the four converted SSGNs
three are in the Pacific.
The USS Hawaii, a nuclear-powered attack submarine, arrived in September
at Yokosuka near Tokyo, home port of the US Seventh Fleet, one more asset in
America's naval buildup in Northeast Asia. The Hawaii is part of new
class of attack submarines that are configured to operate in shallow,
As the submarine's captain was happy to tell the Pacific Stars and Stripes
newspaper on arrival, the sub has the ability to maintain a "persistent
presence off shallow waters". Ideal, it would seem, for the confined spaces of
Japan's southern island chain.
Is the threat of China seizing any of these islands by force realistic? One
could equally say how realistic was it to expect the Russians to invade
Hokkaido? Militaries plan for contingencies, and who is to say that in the
future some Chinese leaders might decide that "historical documents" dating
back to the Ming Dynasty "prove" that these islands are really Chinese
The Chinese claim only the Sentaku, a small group of uninhabited and
essentially useless islands they call the Daioyu. It was the scene of a
diplomatic crisis between Tokyo and Beijing in September involving the brief
detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain accused of ramming his ship against
the coast guard patrol vessels, which is only now beginning to cool. The
islands are not inhabited but access is controlled by Japan whose Coast Guard
regularly patrols the waters.
Both sides have their own narrative to boost their claims to possession. Japan
annexed them in the late 19th century, claiming that nobody else in the
neighborhood seemed to want them. During the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 the
cabinet decided to erect a marker on one of the islets and formally incorporate
them into the empire.
For a few years, some Japanese actually lived on the islands, which are
privately owned; today they are uninhabited. China says its claims go back
further. Among other things, they note that fishermen from Taiwan and Fujian
province and other Chinese provinces regularly fished the waters and collected
herbs from these islands going back to ancient times. This is undoubtedly true,
but it is also probable that these same fishermen touched on Iriomoto Island or
maybe Yonakuni island or the Ishigaki islands to use the Japanese names for
other East China Sea islets that Beijing does recognize at Japanese territory.
It would be beneficial to China if it could occupy and fortify many of the
islands in the southern Sakishima chain. They would be useful in the unlikely
event of any war with Taiwan, by allowing the Chinese navy to operate more
readily along Taiwan's east coast, which is honeycombed with military
installations, many dating back to Japanese occupation and fear of invasion -
from the east.
While the current island crisis has cooled considerably, it has the potential
to cause more trouble. The issue is vulnerable to exploitation by rogue
elements on both sides. These are nationalists from either Japan or China who
sneak past the Japanese Coast Guard patrols and plant themselves on the islands
defying any attempts to evict them and rapidly turning their mere presence on
the islands into a major international crisis.
Deng Xiaoping, architect of modern China, cautioned against letting things
"left over from history" interfere with China's economic development and
modernization. But he has been dead now for 13 years, and Chinese leaders are
increasingly less patient about leaving alone things "left over from history"
than they used to be.
Any new confrontation, whether by Chinese or even Japanese sneaking onto the
island and raising flags, would likely mobilize China's armies of
ultra-nationalist Internet warriors and bloggers accusing their government of
selling out to the Japanese if it didn't take strong measures. Beijing takes
these messages seriously.
The potential for various "incidents" to escalate into major confrontations
over these islands is enormous. On any given day, literally hundreds of Chinese
fishing vessels work the waters near the Senkaku. What if all of them suddenly
converged into the territorial waters at once, overwhelming the two or three
Japanese Coast Guard cutters usually on patrol?
Or, what if 200 or so "activists" (actually intelligence operatives in civilian
clothes), occupied one of the smaller islands in the southern chain and
proclaimed it Chinese territory based on historical documents? It is pertinent
that in next month's exercise, the Japanese are training to retake an island
not repel invaders.
Any conflict with China over Japanese possessions in the East China Sea would
inevitably draw in the United States. Article 5 of the mutual security treaty
obliges the US to defend "territories under the administration of Japan". That
applies to the chain of islands (though it is less clear about the disputed
Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara claims that US Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton told him that Washington considered the Senkaku as being covered by the
For 50 years, since the signing of the Treaty of Mutual Security in 1960, Japan
has fulfilled its part of the bargain by providing Americans with useful
forward bases in Japan. Never has the US had to fulfill its obligation by
coming to Japan's defense. If China did make an aggressive move in the island
chain, Tokyo would have every right to call in the chips.