Getting Serious about the Senkakus

Robert D. Eldridge

 Attention has grown in recent days with regard to the Senkakus in light of the hundreds of Chinese fishing and coast guard vessels entering the contiguous zone surrounding Japanese waters around the islands. However, it is not a new problem. It is only a new stage of the problem, or better said, a new chapter in the book that could be called “The Senkakus Saga.” And like pages in a manuscript, the plot continues to thicken.


 Indeed, it has always been clear, at least to this author, that the story would increasingly get more and more disadvantageous to Japan, and I have spent the past eight years warning about this in academic conferences, bilateral meetings, and policy recommendations.

 Namely, China, which suddenly began claiming the islands 40 years ago
that Japan has had sovereignty over and/or administered for more than one hundred years (minus the twenty-seven years in which the United States administered them as part of the Occupation of Japan from 1945-1952, and administration of Okinawa, from 1952-1972), will eventually take the islands, either by force or other means at some point, using gaps or weaknesses in the U.S.-Japan alliance itself or outside its scope in the so-called gray zones. I wrote about these scenarios in great detail in my book, The Origins of the Senkaku Problem (Routledge, 2014).

 Most Japanese believe that the application of Article 5 of the bilateral security treaty will be sufficient to deter China, or to respond to an aggressive action by it. However, the U.S. government will be placed in a very difficult position domestically politically, and internationally diplomatically, if an attack on the Senkakus occurred. The reasons are discussed in the book, but suffice it to say that it is illogical for the United States to defend territory under Japan’s control when it does not recognize Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, and does not outright deny China’s claims to them. Said another way, if China undertook military actions in the Senkakus, all it would need to say is that the islands are theirs and since the United States has not refuted Chinese sovereignty, it cannot do anything about it.

 There is also the doubt about how serious Japan is to defending the islands in a contingency. It has taken a non-controversial approach over the years, thus emboldening China and weakening its own position internationally. Japan, in short, must get serious about the Senkakus. As China prepares for war, Japan still thinks it is in a gentlemanly-like tennis match. The two countries are playing different games, but only one of them is aware of it.

 The defense of the Senkakus must be a Japan-led effort, and Japan must show its countrymen, its ally, and the world that it will not tolerate China’s rapacious behavior. Importantly, this stance does not have to be exclusively military in nature, but can also be diplomatic, political, economic, and administrative. But it must be militarily prepared, as in the end, that is all China will listen to.

 The best way to defend the islands is to prevent their seizure in the first place. The extreme measure is to fortify the islands, and it is an option that must be actively entertained now in light of China’s aggressive behavior near the islands, as well as in light of its behavior over the past quarter-century in the South China Seas.

 In addition, the increase of a Self-Defense Force presence in the area, singularly, or bilaterally, would be good. One way to do this is to rotate squadrons of ASDF and MSDF aircraft to the beautiful 3000-meter runway at the unused, in-debt airport on Shimoji Island. U.S. aircraft could go there as well, to train, or to scramble together as necessary, to meet unidentified foreign aircraft, much more quickly, effectively, and inefficiently. Moreover, the SDF could begin using the training ranges on the Senkaku Islands, which were used by the U.S. military until the late 1970s but have not been used since then, either at the request of the Foreign Ministry or the U.S. State Department. Ideally, the two countries could use the ranges together, increasing interoperability and sending a strong message of deterrence to China. But if the U.S. military chooses for whatever reasons not to use it, the SDF, which has limited ranges in Japan, should be allowed to take them over immediately. September 7, the 6th anniversary of the infamous collision of the Chinese fishing vessel into the Japan Coast Guard vessel, would be the ideal turn-over date.

 But there are other things that can be done now, and that should have been done over the past forty-four years. These include: the dispatch of personnel to the islands, the construction of a weather station, a port for fishermen to use in inclement weather, and a heliport to be used by Japanese government agencies, as well as the SDF and if necessary, the U.S. military.

 When introducing these non-military administrative measures, I would recommend Japan release the following type of statement, my draft attached here: “In light of China’s continued aggressive actions, which go against international law and norms, near the Japanese islands of the Senkakus, the Government of Japan has decided to increase its exercise of administrative control by placing government personnel on the Senkaku Islands and taking other measures to secure its territorial integrity. Japan understands the international community has appreciated Japan’s self-restraint over the past near forty-five years on developing a physical presence on the islands, out of diplomatic sensitivities, and believes the international community will support these administrative and defensive moves in its own territory. In the meantime, we call on China to stop its aggressive-like actions here in the East China Seas, which have all the countries in the region very concerned.”

 If Japan waits any longer to get serious about the Senkakus, it will certainly lose them, and only military force will get them back. Japan can act administratively now, or militarily later. The costs will certainly be cheaper now.