Japan Is Pinning All of its Expansionist Hopes on This Tiny Fluke Island

The authorities are saying it’s too soon to determine whether Japan’s tiny new island, forced up by an underwater volcanic eruption earlier this week, will actually stay above water. But never mind that. The country is apparently betting on this little-island-that-could to bolster its territorial ambitions in the waters off Japan’s coast. The new island, about 500 ...

EPA/JAPAN COAST GUARD
EPA/JAPAN COAST GUARD
EPA/JAPAN COAST GUARD

The authorities are saying it's too soon to determine whether Japan's tiny new island, forced up by an underwater volcanic eruption earlier this week, will actually stay above water. But never mind that. The country is apparently betting on this little-island-that-could to bolster its territorial ambitions in the waters off Japan's coast.

The new island, about 500 meters south-southeast of Nishinoshima island in the Ogasawara island chain, was first spotted by the Japanese coast guard on Wednesday, and in the days since, it seems that all relevant parts of the Japanese government have mobilized in an effort to use it as an instrument in realizing Japan's expansionist ambitions. According to Japan's English-language AJW, Japan's Headquarters for Ocean Policy has said that the new island could slightly expand Japan's territorial waters, and at a news conference on Nov. 21, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed hope for such an expansion. Including the island in a nautical chart in order to secure international recognition has so far proven difficult for the Japan Coast Guard because of continuing eruptions, but they have been monitoring the island from air in the meantime, according to the news story.

Japan's hopes for the island could be particularly high because of a long-running territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku islands, called Diaoyu in China, which is at the core of escalating tensions between the countries. The dispute over the islets has led to what has been called a game of "military chicken," so far mostly just in the form of mounting threats between the two countries. In October, a Chinese drone flew into disputed airspace and prompted a warning from Japan that it would fire on Chinese drones that subsequently violated the country's air space. "If Japan takes enforcement measures such as shooting down aircraft, as it says it will, that would constitute a serious provocation, an act of war of sorts, and we would have to take firm countermeasures," a Chinese defense ministry spokesman said in October.

The authorities are saying it’s too soon to determine whether Japan’s tiny new island, forced up by an underwater volcanic eruption earlier this week, will actually stay above water. But never mind that. The country is apparently betting on this little-island-that-could to bolster its territorial ambitions in the waters off Japan’s coast.

The new island, about 500 meters south-southeast of Nishinoshima island in the Ogasawara island chain, was first spotted by the Japanese coast guard on Wednesday, and in the days since, it seems that all relevant parts of the Japanese government have mobilized in an effort to use it as an instrument in realizing Japan’s expansionist ambitions. According to Japan’s English-language AJW, Japan’s Headquarters for Ocean Policy has said that the new island could slightly expand Japan’s territorial waters, and at a news conference on Nov. 21, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed hope for such an expansion. Including the island in a nautical chart in order to secure international recognition has so far proven difficult for the Japan Coast Guard because of continuing eruptions, but they have been monitoring the island from air in the meantime, according to the news story.

Japan’s hopes for the island could be particularly high because of a long-running territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku islands, called Diaoyu in China, which is at the core of escalating tensions between the countries. The dispute over the islets has led to what has been called a game of "military chicken," so far mostly just in the form of mounting threats between the two countries. In October, a Chinese drone flew into disputed airspace and prompted a warning from Japan that it would fire on Chinese drones that subsequently violated the country’s air space. "If Japan takes enforcement measures such as shooting down aircraft, as it says it will, that would constitute a serious provocation, an act of war of sorts, and we would have to take firm countermeasures," a Chinese defense ministry spokesman said in October.

The dispute has unleashed no small amount of nationalist chest-beating in both countries, which is most obviously reflected in Japan’s ongoing tug-of-war with neighbors over disputed territories. Japan purchased three of the disputed Senkaku islands from a private owner in 2012, prompting anti-Japanese demonstrations in China, and Japan is also embroiled in a dispute over a different set of islands with South Korea.

While the Headquarters for Ocean Policy has affirmed that the new island created by the volcano is under Japan’s sovereignty, those betting on the island’s potential are still waiting with bated breath to see whether the island is even viable.

"It is not uncommon for newly formed volcanic islands to soon slip back underneath the ocean," the AJW report concedes. Japan’s enemies are likely keeping its fingers crossed for such a demise — or laughing hysterically.

But with Japan’s military restricted to actions of self-defense, volcanic eruptions might just be Tokyo’s best bet to sate its expansionist appetites.

Katelyn Fossett is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy. A native of Kentucky, she has previously written for the Inter Press Service and Washington Monthly. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @KatelynFossett

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