Japan’s nationalization of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea has sparked security tensions in the region over the past 10 years, leaving Tokyo, known for its pacifist constitution, acutely wary of military threats from Beijing.
Japan has controlled the Senkakus, but China has claimed the uninhabited islets since the early 1970s and named them Diaoyu, after United Nations studies showed that there are potentially lucrative gas reserves around them.
On September 11, 2012, the Japanese government of then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda placed the islands under state control, five months after then-Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, abruptly announced that the metropolis would buy some of the Senkaku’s from a private Japanese owner.
File photo taken from a TBEN News aircraft shows the Chinese Coast Guard’s Haijing 2350(L) and the Japanese Coast Guard patrol vessel Hateruma in Japanese territorial waters near Uotsuri, one of the five main islands in the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Group, in the east China Sea on September 10, 2013. (TBEN)
Subsequently, Communist-led China has stepped up provocations in nearby waters, often sending coast guard vessels near the islets, destabilizing the regional security environment. Beijing has maintained that the islands are its “inherent territory.”
In Japan, concerns are mounting that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leadership could attempt to invade the islets after conquering self-ruled democratic Taiwan, which Beijing sees as the province to be reunited with the mainland if necessary. with violence.
Whenever their leaders are replaced, Tokyo, which relied heavily on Washington for military protection, has always sought confirmation from the United States that the Senkaku are covered by Article 5 of the 1960 Japan-US security treaty.
“We cannot be wary of China given its apparent ambition to change the status quo by force,” said a Japanese government official. “The nationalization gave us a signal to seriously rethink our defense policy with a high sense of urgency.”
The Senkaku are under the jurisdiction of Okinawa, Japan’s southern island prefecture – a geopolitically important region that still houses the majority of US bases in the country, more than 50 years after it was returned to Japan under US rule in 1972.
During a campaign for Okinawa’s gubernatorial election on Sunday, three candidates focused on security issues, including the long-running issue of the relocation of a key US Marine Corps base that would deter China.
In April 2012, Ishihara, Japan’s leading nationalist who died earlier this year at age 89, revealed his controversial plan to buy the Senkaku during his speech to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
Speaking in the US capital, Ishihara, who has long been known as a critic of Japan-US relations, sought to urge nations fighting China to strengthen ties with Washington to improve maritime security in the United States. the Asia-Pacific region, a source familiar with his thinking said.
Two years before the politician-turned novelist who called Japan “America’s mistress” delivered the speech, in 2010, a Chinese trawler collided with two Japanese patrol ships near the islets, raising concerns about a military conflict in the East China Sea.
Meanwhile, China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy that year, prompting Ishihara to believe it was becoming impossible to challenge China’s military buildup without US support, said the source working for the metropolitan government. worked from Tokyo.
Ishihara was governor of Tokyo for 13 years from 1999, after nearly three decades in national politics.
“Before he became governor of Tokyo, Ishihara, an ocean enthusiast, was genuinely interested in the situation around the Senkaku Islands and very vigilant against China’s military expansion,” the former municipal government official said.
During his first campaign for the gubernatorial race, Ishihara criticized Walter Mondale, a former US ambassador to Japan, for saying Washington would not be forced by the 1960 treaty to intervene in a dispute over the Senkakus.
Mondale was the US Ambassador to Japan for three years until 1996 under the administration of then President Bill Clinton.
“Despite China’s increasing assertiveness in the region, the United States may not have supported Japan even in the event of a disaster in the East Chain Sea, while Japanese citizens had no sense of crisis. Ishihara was annoyed,” said the former official.
In the wake of Ishihara’s surprising speech, the Japanese government began to strongly emphasize the importance of its security alliance with the United States, and public awareness of national security against China has clearly increased in Japan.
Recently, the United States and Japan, along with Australia and India, have been eager to strengthen cooperation with the Indo-Pacific democracies. The four countries have formed the “Quad” partnership to counter China’s growing influence in the region.
The Chinese Communist Party tabloid, The Global Times, has reprimanded the United States and its security allies for seeking to build an “anti-China alliance in Asia” and establish an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
In Japan, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, led by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, has set a goal of doubling the country’s defense spending to 2 percent or more of gross domestic product over the next five years as part of the effort. to tackle the Chinese threats.
“Ishihara would have been pleased, as his speech could have motivated the United States and the Japanese public to confront China,” the former official added.
Critics, however, reject the view that Ishihara’s move, which ultimately pressured Noda to nationalize the Senkaku, was irresponsible and led to a sharp deterioration in ties between Japan and China.
Years after nationalization, Japanese living in China were forced not to speak their language in public because of heightened anti-Japanese sentiment, said Masaru Kaneko, a 56-year-old Japanese businessman in Beijing.
Sino-Japanese relations “disappeared” after nationalization and “never really recovered despite some fluctuations,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan.
To achieve peace and stability in the region, Japan should seek “deeper diplomatic dialogue and engagement” with China to expand common ground on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations, he added. ready.
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