Japan's new base to stir East China Sea dispute

South China Sea
Japan stirs East China Sea dispute   

Japan is due to switch on a new radar observation station in the East China Sea on Monday, a move that will likely infuriate Beijing and mark the latest escalation in the long-simmering dispute between the two Asian heavyweights.

Tokyo's new Self Defense Force base is located on Yonaguni, an island located 150 kilometers south of the disputed territory known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. The new base can be used as a permanent intelligence gathering post as well an outlet for military operations in the region, adding to Tokyo's existing military buildup along the Yaeyama Island chain, which includes Yonaguni, Reuters reported.

China has yet to make a statement regarding the move, but strategists say it won't deter the mainland from more aggressive expansion in the zone.

"This is the latest step in Japan's response to China's forceful symbolism in the East China Sea," noted Steve Wilford, Asia Pacific director for global risk analysis at Control Risks Group.

Japan has repeatedly called on Beijing to halt activity in the area, particularly the construction of oil-and-gas exploration platforms, after China declared an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) there in 2013.

The disputed area consists of eight islands, with a total area of 81,000 square miles; it's home to an estimated 200 million barrels of oil reserves, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Formally part of Japan since 1895, China began to assert claims over the islands during the 1970s given their strategic location near prominent shipping routes as well as an abundance of fishing.

But the geopolitical value of the islands is bigger than the geological value of the resources under the water, noted Richard Martin, executive vice president at IMA Asia.

While neither Japan nor China have forcibly established control over the islands, the fear is that even small developments could rapidly escalate hostilities and trigger military confrontations.

"This is a situation that has gone from 30 years of being a frozen conflict to one that is increasingly warming up," said Wilford.

"What China wants to do is put a mark on the fact that this territory is disputed... China's intention is to sow doubt into territorial claims and pick off the neighbors one-by-one in bilateral negotiations while changing the physical status-quo on the ground with bases and missiles."

Fishing boats set off for the East China Sea from the Shipu port in Ningbo, China.
ChinaFotoPress | Getty Images
Fishing boats set off for the East China Sea from the Shipu port in Ningbo, China.

Japan on the other hand is taking a more forceful approach and refusing to acknowledge China's claim, Wilford said. In fact, certain lawmakers from the country's ruling Liberal Democratic Party recently expressed a desire to seek international arbitration over Beijing's drilling activities.

Wilford believes China is particularly to blame for the escalation of tension, calling the country's recent actions "self-isolating."

In February, reports surfaced that Beijing deployed surface-to-air missile launchers and a radar system in the South China Sea, where it faces similar territorial disputes with Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines and Vietnam.

"This sows doubt into China's ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) partners, forces the Japanese to abandon their pacifist constitution and comes at a time when China is trying to project soft power. It's very much a contradiction [for China]," Wilford said.

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