Remote island ramps up defenses as tensions rise between Japan and China

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Chinese ships patrol the sea around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands, an uninhabited island chain also claimed by China and Taiwan, near where Kinjo lives. The islands, which are known in China as the Diaoyu Islands and Diaoyutai in Taiwan, have become one of the focus points of increasing tensions in the region.

“The bow of one of their ships was pointed straight at us, and they were chasing us. I don’t know for sure, but I also saw what looked like cannons,” the 50-year-old fisherman told CNN, as he described one of several encounters with the Chinese Coast Guard over the past few years.

Although the territorial dispute over the rocky chain stretches back more than a century, China has increased its presence around the islands, especially in recent decades. That’s prompted fears Beijing will exert its claims over the contested islands.

China’s Foreign Ministry told CNN that the Chinese Coast Guard’s patrols around the waters surrounding the islands were “an appropriate exercise of China’s sovereign right.” But Japan also claims it has a sovereign right to the islands — and it’s strengthening its military forces on Yonaguni and its sister islands in the Nansei chain, east of the Senkakus.

And all of this is a particular concern for Yonaguni residents like Kinjo, who worry about China’s intentions.

Their island sits just 68 miles (110 kilometers) off the coast of Taiwan, the self-ruled, democratic island Beijing also claims as its own, and they fear rising tensions could upend their peaceful community, especially if Beijing attempts to restrict access to the fishing grounds crucial to their livelihoods.

On a clear day, you can see Taiwan from Yonaguni, just 68 miles (110 kilometers) off the Taiwan coast.

Quiet community with a front row seat to tensions

Occupied by the US during World War II, Yonaguni was returned to the Japanese in 1972 as part of Okinawa Prefecture, the band of 150 islands that curves to the south of Japan’s main islands in the East China Sea. It’s unquestionably Japanese, but sits closer to Taiwan than Tokyo — so close that on a clear day you can see the faint outline of Taiwan’s mountain ranges from Yonaguni’s western cape.

In the past, Yonaguni’s promixity to Taiwan and China has made the island, home to fewer than 2,000 people, a popular tourist destination with scuba divers and hikers. But its location also puts it on the frontline of geopolitical tensions as China ramps up its patrols of waters near the Senkaku Islands and displays its military power in the sea and skies near Taiwan.

Twenty years ago, Japan’s Ministry of Defense spotted fewer than 20 Chinese warships — destroyers and frigates — from its coast each year, but not within its contiguous zone, defined as within 24 nautical miles of its coast.

Since then, the number has more than quadrupled to a new high of 71 last year. Including Chinese Coast Guard ships, the figure rises to 110, according to the ministry.

China’s also increasing its presence in the skies around Taiwan, repeatedly sending warplanes into the island’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), prompting Taipei to deploy combat air patrol planes, issue radio warnings and activate air defense missile systems.

Japan has also scrambled fighter jets in response to Chinese aircraft approaching its airspace.

China’s ruling Communist Party has long claimed Taiwan as part of its territory, despite having never ruled over it. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has refused to rule out taking Taiwan by force — a prospect that would not only threaten peace in the region, but pose a national security risk to Japan, as 90% of its energy passes through waters near the island.

In recent weeks, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put the region on alert, especially as China refuses to bow to international pressure to condemn Moscow’s actions. China has dismissed comparisons between Ukraine and Taiwan, stating that Taiwan is “entirely China’s internal affair.” However, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said the island would watch China “very carefully” as events unfolded in Ukraine — and so are residents in Yonaguni.

“The military invasion by Russia to Ukraine has made me concerned about the future of Taiwan and Yonaguni Island,” said local café owner Michiko Furumi. “I really worry about the future of my grandchildren.”

Cafe owner Michiko Furumi moved back to Yonaguni seven years ago and worries about the island's future.

When Kinjo began fishing 25 years ago, he never saw Chinese ships in the Senkakus, but in the last few years, he’s had a growing number of what felt like dangerous encounters. “I have been intercepted with great force. Sometimes I would go there and they would go around me, and I would avoid them because it was dangerous, and then they would go around me again,” he said.

Kinjo is concerned that China’s claims to the Senkaku Islands and its ambitions to take Taiwan might one day extend to include Yonaguni. “Looking at China’s current moves, I have a strong sense of crisis that this island will eventually cease to be Japan.”

Japan’s expanding its defensive forces

As fears grow, the remote island where Kinjo and Furumi live is changing.

In response to the perceived threat from Beijing, Tokyo opened a Japan Self-Defense Force camp on Yonaguni in 2016, staffed by around 160 troops who engage in coastal surveillance.

This month, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force repositioned a mobile radar unit from Miyakojima to the island to more closely monitor Chinese activity in the area.

In 2019, Japan opened new military bases on Yonaguni’s sister islands, Amami Oshima and Miyakojima, and equipped them with medium-range surface-to-air guided missiles and type 12 short-range surface-to-ship guided missiles.

A fourth base is under construction on Ishigaki island, east of Yonaguni, which will be operational from March 2023, according to Japanese Self-Defense Force officials. The new base will be home to about 600 troops and both medium- and short-range missile systems.

Gen. Yoshihide Yoshida, Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) chief of staff, told CNN the extra defense capability was needed to send a strong message to territorial rivals.

“We must protect our country’s territorial sovereignty at all costs. And, we need to send our message that we will firmly defend our country,” he said.

Despite Japan’s recent effort to bolster its defenses, Yoko Iwama, an international relations and security expert at the National Graduate Institute of Policy Studies, said the country is vulnerable.

“We don’t have longer (strike) capabilities, and we definitely need that. What kind, how many, we have to start discussing, but it is very clear that what we have currently is not enough,” she said.

According to Self-Defense Force officials, Japan’s current missile defense systems can only engage an incoming target once it comes within range of about 31 miles (50 kilometers). But China, for instance, has missiles that can be launched from a wide range of warplanes from distances as far away as 186 miles (300 kilometers).

Japan’s post-war constitution restricts it to defensive action, but Prime Minister Fumio Kishida says the government is exploring options to give the country the ability to strike bases on an opponent’s territory as part of its self-defense.

Fears for the future

Back on Yonaguni, the transition from sleepy island to a strategically important defensive outpost doesn’t make all of its residents feel safer. Inn owner Fumio Kano says, if anything, she feels more vulnerable.

“I was taught as a child by my grandparents that the presence of a military facility makes you a target for attack,” she said. “I do not agree that military facilities are being built up on the islands.”

Shigenori Takenishi, head of the local fishing cooperative, says he's worried rising tensions could affect the fishign trade.

But Shigenori Takenishi, the head of the Yonaguni fishing cooperative, says too much is at stake to take any chances. “We need to increase our defense capabilities, including Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, but it alone will not be enough to protect Japan,” he said.

“I believe that the only way to do this is to work closely with the US under the Japan-US Security Treaty Act and to enhance Japan’s own defense capabilities much further.”

The US says the Senkakus fall under the US-Japan mutual defense treaty, which obligates Washington to defend them like any other part of Japanese territory. US President Joe Biden has also said the US would protect Taiwan, if needed, though the White House said the US had not altered its policy of “strategic ambiguity.”

Takenishi says if China blocks access to fishing waters around the Senakakus, Yonaguni’s fishermen will lose their livelihoods, and the entire island will suffer.

Fisherman Kinjo agrees. “If the Senkaku Islands are no longer in Japan, the territorial waters will become smaller, and since Japan is surrounded by sea, this will be a matter of life and death,” he said.

Still, Kinjo says he has little choice but to stare down Chinese Coast Guard ships every time he goes out to sea. “Even if I do what I consider scary, I still have to go offshore for a living. I can’t stop working. I just do my work day in and day out,” he said.

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