The spring escalation of the mental territorial syndrome in Japan has been particularly active this year. According to many observers, including Japanese observers, this can even turn into serious problems for this island state, both in its domestic political life and in relations with its neighbors due to its own obstructive position of the current official Tokyo.
Already in the first days of the new year 2021 a number of Japanese media who decided to actively support the ideological stance of the current authorities of the country to intensify the fight in the territorial disputes, began to publish articles how hundreds of Japanese decided to meet the first rays of the Sun, turning their eyes towards the “disputed territories”.
Hokkaido media outlets (STV News Hokkaido, HTB Hokkaido News, HBC Hokkaido Hoso, Hokkaido News UHB) wrote about it in color, thus adding to the national excitement over the “northern territories” — the islands of the South Kuril Ridge — the subject of Japan’s territorial claims against Russia.
After “celebrating” February 7 as “Northern Territories Day,” Japan began to actively prepare for February 22, “Western Territories Day,” with claims against South Korea. Claims against China are next in line. We get a lot of those “territorial days”.
On January 29, the Japanese government added to its page in the section “territorial sovereignty,” in addition to mentioning the Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Dao in Chinese – an archipelago in the East China Sea, 170 km northeast of Taiwan, the subject of a territorial dispute between Japan, Taiwan and China) and the Kuril Ridge site “Research materials and clarification of the Takeshima Islands”. It states that the islands are sovereign Japanese territory.
On February 13, Japan’s largest news aggregator Yahoo News Japan, citing South Korean media sources JoongAng Ilbo and WoW!Korea, published an informational piece on preparations in Japan for “Takeshima Island Day” (islands located in the Japanese world to the west of the Japanese island of Honshu, declared by Japan as an administrative part of Shimane Prefecture). Because of them, the territorial conflict between Japan and South Korea (there they are called the Dokdo Islands) is flaring up with renewed vigor. On February 12, at a press conference, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi added his share of confrontation to the territorial dispute. The entire apparatus of the Japanese government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are actively involved in the “struggle for the Takeshima Islands,” and the islands are declared “inalienable” Japanese territory in the annual “Blue Books on Japanese Foreign and Security Policy”.
Recently, the South Korean media has been actively circulating information about the alleged Japanese self-defense forces’ scenario of “forcibly securing” Japanese sovereignty over these islands, which easily suggests that the Japanese military may also have similar scenarios for all other “disputed territories”.
As the South China Morning Post writes,
“Japan is in dispute with each and every one of its immediate neighbors over territory, and these conflicting claims largely date back to its imperial past of a century ago. Tokyo insists that it has no ambition to obtain new territories, and simply demands sovereignty over the islands and surrounding waters that have long been recognized as Japanese. But this position is strongly disputed by the governments of China, Russia, Taiwan, and North and South Korea”.
Despite Japan’s sharply worded claims to “disputed territories,” until recently there were no significant signs that the situation could escalate. In December 2018, though, tensions between South Korea and Japan escalated when Tokyo said a South Korean warship held a Japanese coastal patrol plane in the waters near the Takeshima Islands for several minutes on its fire control radar. At the time, Tokyo condemned the incident as “extremely dangerous”.
On February 6 this year, the government of Japan protested to the PRC authorities about the entry of Chinese maritime police patrol ships into the area around the disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu Dao) Islands, as stated by the Secretary-General of the Cabinet of Ministers of Japan Katsunobu Kato. Analysts note the constant maneuvers between the rival powers over sovereignty over these disputed territories. The degree of this “rivalry” has recently increased amid Washington’s open demonstration of its commitment to the security pact with Japan. For example, last October, Lieutenant General Kevin Schneider, commander of the US forces in Japan reported that the US military command in Japan admits the possibility of deploying soldiers to defend the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Dao), which are under Japanese control and are the subject of a dispute between Tokyo and Beijing. In March 2019, Tokyo announced the completion of Japanese military bases on islands in the East China Sea and the deployment of anti-ship and anti-aircraft systems there.
In late January of this year, the new US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that if necessary, the Pentagon is ready to help Japan defend the disputed islands of the Senkaku Archipelago in the East China Sea — the subject of a territorial dispute between Japan, Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China. In particular, he reiterated that the US-Japan Security Treaty covers the Senkaku Islands, and the US is “against any unilateral attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea”.
It is especially noteworthy that on February 1 a law came into force in China according to which the Chinese coast guard may open fire on foreign ships in order to protect national sovereignty. These new “maritime security” laws, which allow Chinese coast guard vessels to ignore foreign demands to stop and allow weapons on board, have already met with considerable hostility from the new US administration, indicating that Chinese authorities may use the new maritime security law to “intimidate neighboring countries in the region”.
Against this background, it is not surprising that there was an “information explosion” in Japan in late February, when the country’s mainstream media gave reports and comments on a sharp statement by Rear Admiral John Kirby, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, demanding that China “immediately stop incursions into Japanese territorial waters around the Japanese Senkaku Islands”. Particular emphasis was placed on the part of the statement which said that “China’s misguided actions could lead to substantial material losses for it”.
Under these circumstances, many observers have started talking about a sharp deterioration in the situation in the South China Sea and the high likelihood of military conflict in the region, often due to the inflammatory and even hostile tone of the Japanese media.
Analysts also point out that there is always the possibility that an unforeseen situation — such as a minor clash between Coast Guard ships — could lead to a rapid escalation of hostilities. For this reason, Tokyo officials would do well to reduce its territorial claims to neighboring countries through a negotiated diplomatic process, rather than by blowing up nationalist propaganda hysteria.
Valery Kulikov, political expert, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.