Japan takes a shot at China- via Taiwan

For Asia Times Online

By Jens Kastner with Wang Jyh-Perng, Reserve Captain Taiwan Navy

Japan extended its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) near Taiwan in the East China Sea without having consulted Taiwanese authorities in advance. Taiwan’s KMT government condemned Japan’s unilateral move in a tone unusually firm compared to previous Taiwanese administrations that had dealt with similar issues in the past.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs vowed not to make any concessions on what it calls a ‘matter of national sovereignty’.

Members of Taiwan’s opposition see Japan’s ADIZ extension in a different light. To them, the affair signifies that Japan doesn’t trust Taiwan anymore. According to the opponents of Taiwanese president’s Ma Ying-jeou’s cross-straits policy, the KMT not only distances Taiwan ever farther from Washington and Tokyo but also uses the ADIZ issue to deliberately incite anti-Japanese sentiment among the Taiwanese to appease Beijing.

These are weighty allegations, and independent observers don’t share the opposition’s opinion. To them, it also seems plausible that Ma Ying-jeou’s government’s strongly opposed Tokyo’s move, yet for another reason.

“It wasn’t the KMT government’s plan to stir up Taiwan’s public opinion against the Japanese”, explains Lin Cheng-Yi, a researcher on international relations at Taiwan’s Academia Sinicia in an interview with Asia Times Online. “The Taiwanese government is worried over China’s reaction, so it doesn’t want to appear as being too soft on Japan”, Lin expounds.

A look out of the box of Taiwan’s partisan politics reveals that Japan isn’t short of motives to step up its military presence in the East China Sea other than to react to the KMT’s pro-China course.

An ADIZ is an area where civilian and military aircraft are required to identify themselves. Aircraft entering the zone are obliged to radio their intended flight course to the respective country’s air traffic controllers. The boundary between the Japanese and the Taiwanese Air Defense Identification Zones over the East China Sea used to be over a little island named Yunaguni. Yunaguni is the westernmost island of Japan and lies 180 km from the Taiwanese east coast. Seamen say that on a good day Taiwan’s coastline can be seen from the island. The ADIZ line, which has defined 2/3 of Yunganui’s airspace as being Taiwanese and 1/3 as Japanese, was drawn by the US military after World War II.

On June 26 Japan unilaterally extended the ADIZ line westwards by 22km. As a result, Taiwanese and Japanese AIDZ now overlap. That Tokyo seems willing to put up with the prospect of doing damage to Taiwan-Japan relations shows how much it worries over China’s military activities in the East China Sea. At least three disputed economically and militarily important areas lie in this part of the Pacific Ocean.

The roots of the Sino-Japan East China Sea conflict lie in the cryptic wording of the ‘Preamble to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Article 76’. There, it is stated that ‘The continental shelf of a coastal State comprises the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to a distance of 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured where the outer edge of the continental margin does not extend up to that distance.’

According to China, the Okinawa Trough, an arc-shaped ocean trench that runs from southwestern Japan to northeastern Taiwan, separates China’s and Japan’s continental shelves. Beijing therefore claims that its territorial waters extend to the trough’s center line. To Japan on the other hand, Okinawa Trough is nothing but an ‘accidental depression’ in the ocean floor, and not the clear-cut boundary between continental shelves as China claims.

Therefore, according to Tokyo’s logic, it’s the ‘200 nautical miles’ mentioned in Article 76 that define the edges of China’s territorial waters in the East China Sea.

The knowledge that the few kilometers where waters claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo overlap not only hold large reserves of oil, gas and fish but also are of strategic importance has been fueling the dispute. In recent years, both sides have been significantly increasing military presence in the region.

Among the areas that have for a long time been in focus of Sino-Japanese contestation are the oil and natural gas fields in the Xihu depression, located around 400 km east of Shanghai in the East China Sea Basin. From the 80ies on the fields have been providing Greater Shanghai with gas for public and industrial use. Later on the fields have undergone further development to cater to the self-supply economy model pursued by the Chinese government.

Japan claims the area to belong to its own exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and therefore regards the Chinese extraction of oil and gas reserves as a large scale theft of its resources.

Another disputed area is the sea near Okinotorishima, a reef far west of Taiwan and roughly 1,700km south of Tokyo. There, within the last 18 months, the Chinese Navy has appeared three times. Japan claims to have the right to establish an EEZ around the reef. China acknowledges Japan’s territorial rights to Okinotorishima itself, but unlike Japan Beijing regards it as rocks, not as an islet. Here again comes the ‘United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea’ into the game. Its hallmark misinterpretative style states that “rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone.” Ironically, the question whether or not a rock can sustain human habitation or economic life seems left to be answered by the very countries involved in the respective disputes.

In June 2009 China’s navy approached Okinotorishima with a missile destroyer, a supply ship, a support ship and two frigates. In April 2010 a fleet consisting of two guided missile destroyers, three frigates, two Kilo-class submarines and one supply ship crossed the line between Okinawa and Miyako Island which is home to popular Japanese beach resorts.

Then, in proximity to the Okinotorishima reef, the Chinese held sea-air joint anti-submarine warfare drills, and China’s ship-borne helicopters once came as close as 90 meters to a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ship. In military terms, this is very near.

After the incidents, Japanese media suspected China of having plans to solve the Okinotorishima dispute once and for all by blowing up the uninhabited reef with the use of Special Forces, naval guns or a missile attack.

A look at the map reveals that it’s not primarily fish and oil that attracts China’s navy to the area – Okinotorishima lies midway between Taiwan and Guam which is home to a major US naval base. Japan believes China’s ships mapped the ocean’s bottom over which the US Pacific Fleet in future conflicts would pass on its way to Taiwan.

Also a major point of contention are the Diaoyutai Islands -called Senkaku Islands in Japanese- which are divided from Okinawa by the Okinawa Trough. The islands are currently controlled by the Japanese. An estimated 3 to 7 billion tons of oil are hidden under the ocean floor around Diaoyutai, and fishery experts count on an annual catch of 150,000 tons. Apart from this, Diaoyutai is a sensitive spot in Japan’s 1,000 nautical miles defense line since the foothold enables the Japan Self-Defense Forces to push forward more than 300km southwest. The islands are considered an ideal location to draw fire off Japan proper in case of an outbreak of war in the East China Sea.

Japan regards Diaoyutai as suitable for the stationing of electronic detection devices and ground-to-air missiles. It is further believed that the US and Japan plan to turn Diaoyutai into an operational outpost of their joint ballistic missile defense system.

To protect its control over Diaoyutai, Japan goes to great lengths. In Japan’s Coast Guard District No.1 on Okinawa not fewer than 20 warships are stationed, with five of which belonging to the kiloton class. Japan’s aircraft patrol the area every morning and afternoon, sometimes even three times a day. On the nearby Miyako and Kume islands radar stations have been built which double-monitor Diaoyutai.

The Chinese side, however, doesn’t seem too impressed with Japan’s military buildup. As it was the case in the waters around Okinotorishima, the Diaoyutai Islands too have been witnessing China’s military showing off increased self-confidence. In 2008 China’s coast guard fleet and J-10 fighters patrolled around Diaoyutai, and in 2009 two Chinese J-10 fighters expelled three Japanese F-2. Earlier this year, a Chinese Oceanic Administration’s research vessel came close to a Japan Coast Guard’s ship and followed it for almost four hours.

From a Japanese perspective China has been challenging Japan’s interests in the East China Sea in ever shorter intervals. China’s navy has been coming closer and closer and has crossed sea lines considered sensitive by Japan. It’s obvious that Japan’s extension of its ADIZ is to be seen in the context of the complicated East China Sea sovereignty disputes. Tokyo’s choice to go ahead with the extension without consulting Taiwan’s authorities is revealing since it demonstrates that Japan worries to a high degree.

Through the recent extension of the ADIZ over the entire island of Yunaguni, Japan has a freer hand in monitoring the Diaoyutai Islands and even the oil fields in the Xihu depression. The deployment of significant fire power on Yunaguni has also become an easier task.

That the Taiwanese have seen their sovereignty infringed by Japan’s actions in the East China Sea is something that has happened in the past. From Lee Teng-hui over Chen Shui-bian to the incumbent Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou – all had reasons to complain about Japanese unilateral moves conducted in that part of the Pacific Ocean. Yet, previous and present-day Taiwanese administrations handled the matter differently. As Academy Sinicia researcher Lin Cheng-yi puts it: “The problems with the Japanese aren’t new, and they have always been raised by the Taiwanese. However, under the Taiwan’s administrations that were pro-Japanese there was no urgent need to solve them.”

 

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