Japan opens radar station around disputed Senkaku islands

Japan sets up new radar station in East China Sea close to Taiwan and group of islands also claimed by China

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Members of Japan's Self Defence Force hold an opening ceremony of a new military base on the island of Yonaguni in the Okinawa prefecture, March 28, 2016.

Japan switched on a radar station on Monday in the East China Sea, giving it a permanent intelligence gathering post close to Taiwan and a group of islands disputed by Japan and China, drawing an angry response from Beijing.

The new Self Defence Force base on the island of Yonaguni is at the western extreme of a string of Japanese islands in the East China Sea, 150 km south of the disputed isles known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.

China has worried its neighbours and Western countries because of its assertive claim to most of the South China Sea where the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims. Japan has been struggling with China over the East China Sea islands for a long time.

"Until yesterday, there was no coastal observation unit west of the main Okinawa island. It was a vacuum we needed to fill," said Daigo Shiomitsu, a Ground Self Defence Force lieutenant colonel who commands the new base on Yonaguni.

"It means we can keep watch on territory surrounding Japan and respond to all situations."

Shiomitsu on Monday attended a ceremony at the base with 160 military personnel and around 50 dignitaries. Construction of some buildings, which feature white walls and traditional Okinawan red-tiled roofs, is still going on.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China's position on the Diaoyu Islands was clear and consistent.

"We hope Japan can take more actions that benefit regional peace and stability," he told a daily news briefing in Beijing.

The 30-sq-km island is home to 1,500 people, who mostly raise cattle and grow sugar cane. The Self Defence Force contingent and family members will increase the population by a fifth.

"This radar station is going to irritate China," said Nozomu Yoshitomi, a professor at Nihon University and a retired major general in the Self Defence Force.

In addition to being a listening post, the facility could be used a base for military operations in the region, he added.

The deployment fits into a wider military build-up along the island chain, which stretches 1,400 km (870 miles) from the Japanese mainland.

An aerial view shows Yonaguni island, Okinawa prefecture, in this file picture taken by Japanese new agency Kyodo on March 28, 2007. [Reuters]

Policy makers consider that this step is one part of a strategy to hold China at bay in the Western Pacific as Beijing amplifies its power around South China Sea.  

Toshi Yoshihara, a US Naval War College professor, said Yonaguni sits next to two potential flashpoints in Asia - Taiwan and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islets.

"A network of overlapping radar sites along the island chain would boost Japan's ability to monitor the East China Sea," he added.

Yonaguni is only around 100 km (62 miles) east of Taiwan, near the edge of a controversial air defence identification zone set up by China in 2013.

Japanese cabinet had approved its biggest ever military budget of a 5.05 trillion yen ($41.4 billion) for fiscal year 2016-2017.   

Over the next five years, Japan will fortify its Self Defence Force in the East China Sea by about a fifth to almost 10,000 personnel, including missile batteries that will help Japan draw a defensive curtain along the island chain.

Chinese ships sailing from their eastern seaboard must pass through this barrier to reach the Western Pacific, access to which Beijing needs both as a supply line to the rest of the world's oceans and for naval power projection.

TRTWorld, Reuters