Japan And The Senkaku Islands: Are Our Assumptions Wrong?


The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is turning up the heat around Japan’s Senkaku Islands. It is challenging Japanese control and has warned Tokyo not to complain the next time a host of Chinese fishing boats swarms the area – with Chinese Coast Guard and PLA Navy ships providing cover. And this is likely to happen sooner rather than later.

Japan’s Defense Minister, Taro Kono, said at an early August news conference: “The SDF (Self Defense Force) will act firmly when necessary while joining hands with the Japan Coast Guard.” Kono declined to provide details, noting: “We do not want to show our cards.”  

Many Western observers have long assumed that if backed into a corner Japan will fight — despite its reticence about things military. The prospect of losing territory to the Chinese is presumably such a “corner.”

And despite its shortcomings, the Japan Self Defense Force, particularly the Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) with its highly professional surface, submarine and anti-submarine forces – is capable of bloodying an opponent’s nose.

But maybe this assumption is wrong?

Could it be that Japan – or better said, that part of its ruling political and business classes that makes such decisions — has no intention of ‘going kinetic’ to defend the Senkakus? And if the Chinese presence becomes too overwhelming Tokyo will simply cede the area to the PRC. It will complain of course, but it won’t shoot – reckoning the cost of war with China far exceeds the value of ‘some rocks.’

Far-fetched? Maybe not.

A recently retired JSDF officer noted: “I think even though Senkaku Islands is invaded by China, (the ) Japanese Government will not choose war. I’m very sorry but Japanese statesmen think these affairs (Senkaku and Takeshima Islands) are not military matters but political matters.”

Recall that the Obama administration allowed the PRC to take de facto control of the South China Sea without putting up a fight – or much of an argument. And back then the U.S. military still had the advantage over the People’s Liberation Army.

There are of course Japanese – including factions in the ruling LDP and most of the JSDF – that think Japan should defend all its territory. But there were also Americans who thought Mr. Obama should forcefully defend U.S. partners and interests in East Asia in the 2010’s. 

If this is what Japan’s leaders are thinking, they can’t exactly publicly declare it. For one thing, Japan’s public might be outraged – if public opinion polls overwhelmingly negative towards China are anything to go by. But the citizenry doesn’t always matter much in Japan and the government can always just say after the fact, ‘shoganai’ – it couldn’t be helped

One suspects “Japan, Inc.” might also be in the “Senkakus aren’t worth a war” camp. The Abe administration recently allotted US$2 billion to help Japanese companies move operations out of China. However, Keidanren – Japan’s powerful business federation – is reportedly soon to issue a call for deeper economic ties with China – citing its post-Corona ‘v-shaped’ recovery.  

Toyota, Japan’s leading company, already went all-in on electric vehicle production in China just a few months ago.

There is precedent for Japanese business interests shaping defense policy. In 2012 anti-Japanese riots broke out in China (over the Senkakus) and targeted a Japanese supermarket chain’s stores in the PRC. Around the same time, a prominent official close to Japanese Prime Minister Noda reportedly convinced Noda to cancel an upcoming amphibious exercise near Okinawa after the Chinese complained. The official’s family owned the stores being targeted in China.

No doubt this isn’t unique to Japan. Wall Street and the American business community have pressured successive U.S. administrations to accommodate the PRC for decades.

In fairness, Japan is not ignoring defense. But it almost seems to be going through the motions – hoping China is somehow frightened off or loses interest.  

Defense spending doesn’t increase much, recruitment is lackluster, the services can’t easily operate together, Japan’s home-built stealth fighter is scheduled for operations in 2035, and the government still can’t figure out missile defense – or offense.

Closer to the Senkakus, the GSDF is fortifying several of Japan’s southern islands and is in the process of installing anti-ship missiles and anti-aircraft systems. The MSDF and Japan Coast Guard diligently patrol near the Senkakus, and the Japan Air Self Defense Force intercepts intruding PLA jets intruding into Japanese airspace.  

However, these activities are disjointed and reactive rather than part of a coherent defense scheme. And Japanese forces are increasingly outmatched numbers-wise by Chinese ships and aircraft. 

Nor is Senkaku defense a fully joint U.S.-Japan effort – despite the need being obvious for years.

If Japan does give up the Senkakus it might avoid an immediate problem from Tokyo’s perspective, but that won’t be the end of Chinese demands.  

And where would this leave the Americans?

U.S. forces have operated on the assumption each side will do its part to defend Japan’s territorial integrity. Cede the Senkakus and it raises doubts about Japanese reliability and commitment, as well as complicating U.S. and Japanese military operations in the East China Sea and beyond.

The Americans might reasonably ask: Are there other parts of Japan you intend to give away? Or other instances where you will stand-down?

If the new American ambassador ever does arrive in Tokyo, his first order of business should be to ask the Japanese what they have in mind for the Senkakus?  

After 60 years of alliance, one would think both sides would know by now.