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    Japan
     Dec 3, 2010


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 take part.

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, near-shore waters.

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 territory?

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 Senkaku.)

Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara claims that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told him that Washington considered the Senkaku as being covered by the defense treaty.

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.

Todd Crowell is a Tokyo-based correspondent.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


Japan spins anti-China merry-go-round (Oct 29, '10)

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