Nobuhiro Kubo reports for Reuters, April 19, 2014, that for the first time in more than 40 years, Japan undertook its first military expansion at the western end of its island chain by breaking ground on a military radar station on the Yonaguni island off Taiwan. When constructed, 100 troops will man the radar station.
Note: Yonaguni Island, a population around 1700, is one of the Yaeyama Islands and the westernmost inhabited island of Japan. It is the last of the Ryukyu Islands chain, and lies about 67 miles from the east coast of Taiwan, and 93 miles from the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu islets. (For more, go here.)
The move risks angering China, locked in a dispute with Japan over the nearby Senkaku or Diaoyu islands which they both claim.
Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, who attended a ceremony on Yonaguni island to mark the start of construction, suggested the military presence could be enlarged to other islands in the seas southwest of Japan’s main islands.
“This is the first deployment since the U.S. returned Okinawa (1972) and calls for us to be more on guard are growing,” Onodera told reporters. “I want to build an operation able to properly defend islands that are part of Japan’s territory.”
The military radar station on Yonaguni, part of a longstanding plan to improve defense and surveillance, gives Japan a lookout just 150 km (93 miles) from the Japanese-held Senkaku islands also claimed by China.
More than that, building the radar station could also extend Japanese monitoring to the Chinese mainland and track Chinese ships and aircraft circling the disputed Senkakus.
Heigo Sato, a professor at Takushoku University and a former researcher at the Defense Ministry’s National Institute for Defense Studies, said the new base on Yonaguni “should give Japan the ability to expand surveillance to near the Chinese mainland. It will allow early warning of missiles and supplement the monitoring of Chinese military movements.”
The 30 sq km (11 sq mile) Yonanguni island is home to 1,500 people and known for strong rice liquor, cattle, sugar cane and scuba diving. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to put troops there shows Japan’s concerns about the vulnerability of its thousands of islands and the perceived threat from China.
Japan does not specify an exact enemy when discussing its defense strategy but it makes no secret it perceives China generally as a threat as it becomes an Asian power that could one day rival Japan’s ally in the region, the United States. In its National Defense Programme Guidelines issued in December, Japan expressed “great concern” over China’s military buildup and “attempts to change the status quo by coercion” in the sea and air.
China’s decision last year to establish an air-defense identification zone in the East China Sea, including the skies above the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islets, further rattled Tokyo.
Japanese and Chinese navy and coastguard ships have played cat-and-mouse around the uninhabited islands since Japan nationalized the territory in 2012. Japanese warplanes scrambled against Chinese planes a record 415 times in the year through to March, Japan’s Defense Ministry said last week.
Tapping concern about China, Abe raised military spending last fiscal year for the first time in 11 years to help bolster Japan’s capability to fight for islands with a new marine unit, more longer-range aircraft, amphibious assault vehicles and helicopter carriers. Japan’s thousands of islands give it nearly 30,000 km (18,600 miles) of coastline to defend.
While many of the islanders on Yonaguni are looking forward to hosting the radar base because of the economic boost it will bring, others fear becoming a target should Japan end up in a fight.
“Opinion is split down the middle,” Tetsuo Funamichi, the head of the Japan Agricultural Association’s local branch, told Reuters. “It’s good for the economy if they come, but some people worry that we could be attacked in an emergency.”
When Defense Minister Onodera was in Yonaguni to mark the start of construction of the radar station, he was greeted by about 50 protesters who tried to block him from entering the construction site. A protestor who declined to be identified said, “Becoming a target is frightening, they won’t talk to us about it, we haven’t discussed it.”