The Cable

Japan Talks Tough on Senkaku Islands Dispute with China

Japan flexes its maritime military muscles.


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday said Tokyo would boost its Coast Guard budget and add more patrol craft, as a long-simmering dispute with China over islands in the East China Sea heats up.

“Since the fall of 2012, Chinese government vessels have sailed near the Senkakus almost daily, and have entered Japan’s territorial waters around the islands a few times a month,” Abe told his ministers. The disputed islands are known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. They are administered by Japan but are claimed by China — a perennial source of friction for two neighbors still harboring scars from World War II.

Japan will increase its Coast Guard budget to 210 billion yen ($1.8 billion) to add five new patrol ships and over 200 more personnel. It’s part and parcel of a steady military build up in Japan. In March, an Abe-backed law passed allowing Japan to deploy troops to use force to defend allies. One stated reason for the law? China’s increasing maritime might. In recent years, China has increased spending on both its Coast Guard and Navy. Last year, it was noted that China frequently deployed its Coast Guard, and not its Navy, into disputed waters — thereby avoiding creating an international incident while still asserting its presence and claims to control.

Japanese Transport Minister Keiichi Ishii said that the situation in the East China Sea is becoming increasingly urgent, because China is becoming increasingly aggressive. In the summer, for example, China sent hundreds of finishing boats and government ships into waters around the islands. Chinese President Xi Jinping said that the issue should be resolved through dialogue. Japan, presumably, thinks it could be resolved by China not sending vessels around the water.

It’s not just around those disputed isles. China grabbed an unmanned U.S. underwater drone in the South China Sea last week — claiming that the glider was operating on the doors of Chinese territory, though it was just off the Philippine coast.

This is not Japan’s only island dispute, either. Earlier this month, Abe met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to get Russia to return the Kuril Islands to Japan. Known as the Northern Territories in Japan, the islands have been claimed by Moscow since the waning days of World War II. 

While Abe and Putin are trying to deepen ties, including more economic cooperation, returning the islands to Tokyo seems like it might be a land bridge too far for the Russian leader, leaving Abe with four more islands to dispute.

Photo credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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