Japan began the construction of a radar station today on Yonaguni, an island less than 100 miles off the coast of Taiwan. The facility will provide Japan with better defense and surveillance capabilities over the nearby Senkoku Islands, a small chain that is the focus of a bitter dispute between China, Taiwan and Japan.
The move is the Japan’s first military expansion in 40 years and could be the first of many such expansions in the islands southeast of the country’s main islands, according to Defense Minister Isunori Onodera.
"This is the first deployment since the U.S. returned Okinawa in 1972, and calls for us to be more on guard are growing," Onodera said. "I want to build an operation able to properly defend islands that are part of Japan's territory.”
Yonaguni Island is about 93 miles away from the disputed Senkaku Islands (they are called the Diaoyudao Islands in China). They are disputed for a number of geopolitical, historical and economic reasons, but most recently the dispute has centered on fishing rights around the islands.
There are currently only two police officers stationed on the small island inhabited by around 1,500 residents. Japan will deploy 100 soldiers from its Self-Defense Force (JSDF), along with the radar station.
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Some locals are worried the radar base will bring unwanted attention the island, making it a target if the dispute with China ever gets hot. A scuffle even broke out near the groundbreaking ceremony site. Others welcome the deployment, saying it will boost the local economy.
"Opinion is split down the middle," Tetsuo Funamichi, head of the Japan Agricultural Association's local branch, told Reuters. "It's good for the economy if they come, but some people worry that we could be attacked in an emergency."
Tensions over the nearby Senkoku Islands have ramped up over the last two years. In 2013, Japanese and Chinese military vessels came within two miles of one another and prepared for an engagement. Taiwanese fishing vessels escorted by the Taiwanese Coast Guard have also entered the waters around the islands. China has deployed drones as well, which the Japanese said they would shoot down if they felt necessary.
President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet next week in Tokyo to reaffirm the already strong U.S.-Japanese alliance across multiple sectors, including defense.
In 2012 the two countries signed an amendment of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security affirming that the U.S. would defend Japan in the event of an attack on the Senkaku Islands. The U.S. has stated multiple times, including in the aforementioned treaty, that it prefers a collaborative diplomatic solution to resolve the dispute.
China heavily disapproves of the Japanese activities on Yanaguni. In a press conference on Friday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying stated that the Japanese are causing instability in the region in a press conference on Friday.
"Due to historical reasons, any of Japan's military moves will raise concern among Asian countries. Japan has been hyping up regional threat and accelerating military buildup over the recent period of time," said Hua, "Japan should give a serious explanation for its real intention of building military muscle in relevant region. We hope that the Japanese side can learn lessons from history, adhere to the path of peaceful development, respect and take seriously the legitimate security concerns of its Asian neighbors and do more to promote mutual trust with its neighbors and safeguard regional peace and stability."