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Why Japan Should Put Boots on the Ground on the Senkaku Islands

Japanese navy sailors at a ship railing. Image: tpsdave/pixabay

This article was originally published by Strife on 25 May 2015.

Halfway between Japan and Taiwan are the the Senkaku Islands. They are claimed by Beijing under the name Diaoyu and by Taipei with the label Diaoyutai. The islands are prime real estate from a strategic perspective. Despite rumblings to the contrary, Tokyo seems to be sticking to her policy not to deploy ground troops on these islands. This is usually portrayed as a goodwill gesture, an olive branch extended to China, showing how Japan is ready to negotiate in good faith and how she does not see a military solution as the only possible outcome of the territorial dispute over the islands between China and Taiwan. This is a view supported by the mainstream media and many observers.

But China is keeping the pressure on the islands, with constant incidents featuring coastguard (and other state) vessels and trawlers entering Japanese territorial waters around them. And there is not much evidence of any attempt by Beijing to negotiate in good faith. This is in contrast to the approach taken by Taipei, which has reached a fisheries agreement with Tokyo, a practical implementation of President Ma’s East China Sea Peace Initiative.

The policy question now on the table is: should Japan continue to refrain from permanently deploying land forces in these disputed islands? Or should Tokyo instead base ground troops there? While legitimate and considered arguments have been put forward to defend the continued lack of such a military presence, a comprehensive examination of the situation demands a look at both alternatives. The purpose of this short article is to explain and make the case for a permanent land deployment. In particular, the article deals with the impact on the situation of China’s increasing resort to its aerial assets.

When contemplating the different future scenarios involving the Senkaku Islands, we should bear in mind that in addition to conventional operations to invade them, Beijing may land troops on one or more islands, without opening fire on Japanese forces, in order to prompt negotiations on her terms and dare Tokyo to be the first to resort to lethal force to recover them. This could take the form of an airborne landing, against which Japanese Coast Guard units and the rules of engagement (ROEs) under which they operate are not prepared. Helicopters could be deployed conventionally, or clandestinely from hangars in converted trawlers. An incident in December 2012, involving the violation of Japan’s airspace, showed that the reaction time may well not be enough to prevent such an assault. “Chinese aircraft had already left the islands’ territorial air space by the time the Japanese fighters arrived on the scene”.

Furthermore, China may resort to “civilian activists”, who have already taken part in past incidents, including a balloon flight last year, or a mixture of special forces and unarmed civilians. To date the latter have passively accepted arrest and deportation, but they could be employed in other ways.

For years, and in particular over the last decade, Chinese coastguard vessels, with the cooperation of trawlers, have been provoking their Japanese counterparts, repeatedly violating Tokyo’s territorial waters. In response, Japanese vessels have sought to block the intruders, leading to some ramming incidents. While this has, to a large extent, become part of the East Asian landscape, also occurring in the South China Sea, the advent of a third dimension – of air assets seeking to probe Japanese defences – could be destabilizing. There is a key difference between ships and aircraft: while one can physically block boats without sinking them, using other vessels, it is much more difficult to prevent the passage of an aircraft without downing it. Tools such as water cannons do not work against planes. Thus, the current ROEs are inadequate to prevent an airborne assault on the Senkaku Islands.

The problem goes beyond Japanese ROEs, and may potentially impact Tokyo’s alliance with Washington DC. The United States is treaty-bound to help Japan defend herself, not attack another country. After some doubts, it is now explicitly accepted that the Treaty covers the Senkaku islands. But in practice the bloodless occupation by Chinese forces of one or more islands could stretch the US-Japanese alliance, making it more difficult for Washington to support Tokyo. Washington is bound to help Tokyo defend territories “administered” by Japan, would a lost island still fall under this category? How long does it take for defensive operations to become offensive?

Although the US military is helping Japan develop her own amphibious capabilities, Washington has sometimes appeared reluctant to conduct drills featuring the retaking of an island, seen as too provocative in Beijing’s eyes. Perhaps it is in recognition of this that, in order to lessen the scope for miscalculation, the recently-released Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation explicitly state that “if the need arises, the Self-Defense Forces will conduct operations to retake an island”.

If the only possible scenario was a conventional seaborne invasion of the Senkaku Islands, it may perhaps make sense to stress a naval ring around the islands, to the detriment of their static defence by means of ground troops. It may make sense to stress offensive versus defensive capabilities, and to avoid tying down too many assets and personnel in a fixed deployment. However, as the saying goes, the enemy has a choice, and history shows that he has a nasty habit of failing to cooperate by doing what he is expected to do.

The same applies to the case at hand. There is no reason why Beijing has to stick to the strategy it has been following over the last decade. It is thus necessary to consider all scenarios, including first of all the possibility of an aerial assault, and second an operation by civilian,or mixed military and civilian forces. In other words, China may either get to the islands by air, thus bypassing the Japanese Coastguard, or send activists (perhaps in conjunction with military personnel), to occupy them. Current ROEs are not prepared to deal with either contingency, and in both cases the lack of a permanent land presence offers an opening for Beijing.

The lack of a “tripwire” – troops on the ground – makes it easier for Beijing to miscalculate: to invade in the hope that Japan will not react and that Washington will not only fail to support her ally but even pressure Tokyo to submit. With troops on the ground, invading means starting a war. Without troops on the ground, it may be seen merely as notching up tension. Democracies often find it difficult to shoot first, and a bloodless unopposed landing may prompt myriad voices to seek appeasement, under the guise of avoiding escalation.

Furthermore, such an operation would not be taking place in a vacuum, but be part of a much wider exercise in propaganda, designed to confound and divide Japanese public opinion and decision-makers, and their Allied counterparts. Beijing may seek to appear “reasonable” and open to bilateral negotiations, while vetoing any possible UN involvement and slamming third parties. She could play the “far away, no essential interests involved” card before the American public. There could even be proposals for an interim joint administration scheme, a mutual withdrawal of forces, or others, designed to effectively remove any Japanese presence from the islands, thus opening the way for their later takeover.

Despite the complexity involved in responding to an occupation of the Senkaku Islands, both in Japan and the US, it is notable that over the last few decades Japanese public opinion has gradually hardened towards China. This makes it unlikely that Tokyo would just accept a Chinese invasion, thus making the retaking of the Islands a political imperative.

Many visitors to Japan often focus on the more informal or fun aspects of the country, from comic books (manga) to extravagant fashion, usually grouped under the label “kawaii”, loosely translated as “cute”. However, beneath beneath this Kawaii façade, or rather coexisting with this, there is another Japan, one with little appetite for appeasement. It is doubtful that any Japanese government would survive a failure to react to a Chinese invasion of the Senkaku Islands, and it is no coincidence to see Prime Minister Shinzo Abe incorporate the Falklands in his narrative.

Therefore, in order to promote peace and reduce the risks of war, Japan should pursue the opposite policy to the one it is currently following. This means permanently deploying ground troops, reconsidering the ROEs under which Japanese forces in the area operate (with particular attention to air incursions), and developing the economy and infrastructure of the Senkaku Islands, thereby linking them more closely at all levels to the Japanese mainland. Given that a landing may feature civilians, in addition to conventional troops, it is necessary to have a police presence, or military units able to deal with both an armed and an unarmed invasion.

This would send a strong signal to Beijing not to expect a bloodless invasion to be successful, thus reducing the scope for adventure. China is less likely to attack if it means drawing first blood and unequivocally appearing as the aggressor. A permanent deployment would also reduce the chances of success for any landing, thus avoiding the need for a much more costly (in blood and treasure) amphibious counterattack. What’s more, it would in no unceratin terms tell Washington and other regional allies like New Delhi, Manila and Hanoi, that Japan is not caving in to Chinese pressure. At the same time it would reassure Taiwan that her flank is secure. By incorporating the Falklands in his political discourse, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already made it clear that Japan is not for turning, and the next logical step is to implement a new policy on the ground, leaving as little room as possible for a dangerous miscalculation.


Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He tweets at Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here.

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2 Responses to “Why Japan Should Put Boots on the Ground on the Senkaku Islands”

  1. If Japan puts people in the islands, politicians in China and Taiwan will be under a lot of pressure to either remove them or to also put their own people on the islands. And I think it would be fair to say that Japan will have caused the escalation.

  2. What is really needed is a way to de-escalate but without appearing to back down. The recent escalation was the Japanese government buying the islands, so maybe a good step would be to re-sell it, preferably to a buyer who is a citizen of a neutral third country, such as Switzerland. If the Japanese government did that, they would be in a good position to ask China to make a corresponding de-escalation too, and it could be the beginning of a return to peaceful progress.