Chinese ships patrol the seas around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, a chain of uninhabited islands also claimed by China and Taiwan, near where Kinjo lives. The islands, known in China as Diaoyu Islands and Diaoyutai Islands in Taiwan, have become one of the hotbeds of growing tensions in the region.
“The bow of one of their ships was pointing straight at us, and they were chasing us. I don’t know for sure, but I also saw what looked like cannons,” the 50-year-old fisherman told CNN. , as he describes one of many encounters with the Chinese Coast Guard over the past few years.
Although the territorial dispute over the rocky range dates back more than a century, China has increased its presence around the islands, especially in recent decades. This raises fears that Beijing is exercising its claims over the disputed islands.
China’s Foreign Ministry told CNN that the Chinese Coast Guard’s patrols around the waters surrounding the islands were “an appropriate exercise of China’s sovereign right”. But Japan also claims it has sovereign right over the islands – and it is building up its military forces on Yonaguni and its sister islands in the Nansei chain, east of the Senkakus.
And all of this is of particular concern to Yonaguni residents like Kinjo, who worry about China’s intentions.
Their island is just 110 kilometers off the coast of Taiwan, the democratic and self-governing island that Beijing also claims as its own, and they fear that rising tensions will upend their peaceful community, especially if Beijing tries to restrict the access to fishing areas crucial for their subsistence.
Quiet community with a front row seat for tensions
Occupied by the United States during World War II, Yonaguni was returned to the Japanese in 1972 as part of Okinawa Prefecture, the strip of 150 islands that curves south of Japan’s main islands in the China Sea eastern. It’s unmistakably Japanese, but it’s closer to Taiwan than Tokyo – so close that on a clear day you can see the faint outline of Taiwan’s mountain ranges from the western cape of Yonaguni.
In the past, Yonaguni’s proximity to Taiwan and China made the island, which is home to less than 2,000 people, a popular tourist destination for divers and hikers. But its location also puts it at the forefront of geopolitical tensions as China steps up patrols in the waters near the Senkaku Islands and displays its military might in the sea and sky near Taiwan.
Twenty years ago, the Japanese Ministry of Defense spotted fewer than 20 Chinese warships – destroyers and frigates – from its shores each year, but not in its contiguous zone, defined as within 24 nautical miles of its shores. .
Since then, the number has more than quadrupled to reach a new high of 71 last year. Including Chinese coastguard vessels, the figure rises to 110, according to the ministry.
China is also increasing its presence in the skies around Taiwan, repeatedly sending fighter jets into the island’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), prompting Taipei to deploy combat air patrol aircraft, to issue radio warnings and activate air defense missile systems.
Japan has also dispatched fighter jets in response to Chinese planes approaching its airspace.
China’s ruling Communist Party has long claimed Taiwan as part of its territory, although it has never ruled there. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has refused to rule out taking Taiwan by force – a prospect that would not only threaten peace in the region, but pose a national security risk to Japan, as 90% of its energy passes through the waters near the island.
“Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine has made me worried about the future of Taiwan and Yonaguni Island,” said local cafe owner Michiko Furumi. “I really worry about the future of my grandchildren.”
When Kinjo started fishing 25 years ago, he never saw Chinese vessels in the Senkakus, but in recent years he’s had an increasing number of what he thought were dangerous encounters. “I was intercepted very forcefully. Sometimes I would go there and they would go around me, and I would avoid them because it was dangerous, and then they would go around me again,” he said.
Kinjo fears that China’s claims to the Senkaku Islands and its ambitions to take Taiwan will one day extend to Yonaguni. “Looking at China’s current moves, I have a strong sense of crisis that this island will eventually cease to be Japan.”
Japan expands its defensive forces
As fears grow, the remote island where Kinjo and Furumi live changes.
In response to the perceived threat from Beijing, Tokyo opened a Japan Self-Defense Force camp in Yonaguni in 2016, staffed by around 160 soldiers who engage in coastal surveillance.
This month, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force repositioned a mobile radar unit from Miyakojima to the island to more closely monitor Chinese activity in the area.
In 2019, Japan opened new military bases on the sister islands of Yonaguni, Amami Oshima and Miyakojima, and equipped them with medium-range surface-to-air guided missiles and Type 12 short-range surface-to-ship guided missiles.
A fourth base is under construction on Ishigaki Island, east of Yonaguni, which will be operational from March 2023, according to Japan Self-Defense Force officials. The new base will house approximately 600 troops and medium and short range missile systems.
General Yoshihide Yoshida, chief of staff of Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF), told CNN the extra defense capability was needed to send a strong message to territorial rivals.
“We must protect the territorial sovereignty of our country at all costs. And we must send our message that we will stand firm in defending our country,” he said.
Despite Japan’s recent efforts to strengthen its defences, Yoko Iwama, an international relations and security expert at the National Institute for Policy Studies, said the country was vulnerable.
“We don’t have longer (strike) capabilities, and we really need them. What kind, how many, we have to start discussing, but it’s very clear what we have now is not enough. “, she said.
According to Self-Defense Force officials, Japan’s current missile defense systems can only engage an incoming target once it is within range of about 31 miles (50 kilometers). But China, for example, has missiles that can be launched from a wide range of warplanes at ranges as far as 186 miles (300 kilometers).
Japan’s post-war constitution limits it to defensive action, but Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the government was exploring options to give the country the ability to strike bases in an adversary’s territory as part of his self-defense.
Fears for the future
Back on Yonaguni, the transition from a sleepy island to a strategically important defensive outpost doesn’t make all of its inhabitants safer. Inn owner Fumio Kano says she feels more vulnerable.
“My grandparents taught me as a child that the presence of a military installation makes you a target of attack,” she said. “I disagree with the fact that military installations are being built on the islands.”
But Shigenori Takenishi, the head of the Yonaguni Fisheries Cooperative, says the stakes are too high to take risks. “We need to increase our defense capabilities, including Japan’s self-defense forces, but that alone will not be enough to protect Japan,” he said.
“I think the only way to achieve this is to work closely with the United States under the Japan-US Security Treaty Act and further strengthen defense capabilities. from Japan.”
Takenishi says if China blocks access to fishing waters around the Senakakus, Yonaguni fishermen will lose their livelihoods and the whole island will suffer.
Fisherman Kinjo agrees. “If the Senkaku Islands are no longer in Japan, territorial waters will become smaller, and since Japan is surrounded by sea, it will be a matter of life and death,” he said.
Still, Kinjo says he has no choice but to watch the Chinese Coast Guard ships every time he goes out to sea. “Even if I do what I consider scary, I still have to go abroad to earn a living. I can’t stop working. I just do my job day in and day out,” he said.