The Senkaku Islands are hotly contested by China and Japan. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

The People’s Republic of China is turning up the heat around Japan’s Senkaku Islands, which the Chinese also claim and call the Diaoyu Islands.

It is challenging Japanese control and has warned Tokyo not to complain the next time a host of Chinese fishing boats swarm 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 that the Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF) “will act firmly when necessary while joining hands with the Japan Coast Guard.”

Kono declined to provide details, saying: “We do not want to show our cards.”

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

Map: Wikimedia

And despite their shortcomings, the Self Defense Forces – particularly the Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) with its highly professional surface, submarine and anti-submarine forces – have the capability to bloody an opponent’s nose.

But maybe the assumption is wrong.

It could be that in Japan – or, better said, in those parts of its ruling political and business classes that make such decisions – there is no intention of “going kinetic” to defend the Senkakus.

If the Chinese presence becomes overwhelming, Tokyo may simply cede the area to the PRC. It would complain of course, but would it shoot? Or would it reckon that the cost of military confrontation with China would far exceed the value of “some rocks”?

Far-fetched? Maybe not.

A recently retired JSDF officer, unprompted, recently confided his belief that, even if the Senkaku Islands are invaded by China, the “Japanese government will not choose war.”

He expained: “I’m very sorry but Japanese statesmen think these affairs” – in this case he was referring both to the Senkakus and the South Korean-controlled Takeshima Islands – “are not military matters but political matters.”

I take his point. The Japanese would sort of resist but my own guess is that, if the only way to remove the Chinese were to shoot, Japan wouldn’t do it.

This assumes the Chinese don’t start shooting first. If China just comes in and parks itself and even lands some people on the Senkakus and says, “wuddyugonnadoaboutit?,” the government of Japan just might do nothing much.

Activists shout slogans and wave the Chinese flag aboard a vessel in Hong Kong, October 22, 2006.  Japan and China have sparred over a group of uninhabited islands known as the Senkaku Islands to Japanese and the Diaoyu Islands in China. The area is believed to lie near oil and gas reserves. In October 2006, a boat carrying activists from the Hong Kong-based Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands sailed within 20 km of the main island in the chain before they were warned off by a Japanese patrol boat. Chinese writing on a banner reads: "Japan get out of the Diaoyu Islands". Photo: Reuters/Paul Yeung
Activists shout slogans and wave the Chinese flag aboard a vessel bound from Hong Kong to a group of uninhabited islands known to Japanese as the Senkaku Islands and to Chinese as the Diaoyu Islands. Photo: Agencies

Recall that the Barack 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 US military still had the advantage over the People’s Liberation Army.

There are of course Japanese – including factions in the ruling LDP and most members of the JSDF – who think Japan should defend all of the territories it claims. But there were also Americans who thought Obama should forcefully defend US partners and interests in East Asia in the 2010s. 

If letting go is what Japan’s leaders are thinking of doing, they can’t exactly publicly declare it. For one thing, Japan’s public might be outraged – if public opinion polls, overwhelmingly negative toward China, are anything to go by.

But the citizenry doesn’t always matter much in Japan and the government can always simply say, after the fact, “Shoganai” – it couldn’t be helped. 

One suspects that Japan Inc might 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, a Japanese friend whom I trust told me the other day that Keidanren – Japan’s powerful business federation – is soon to issue a call for deeper economic ties with China, while citing the PRC’s post-Corona V-shaped recovery.

Toyota, Japan’s leading company, is planning to go all-in on electric vehicle production in China.

There is a 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 Yoshihiko Noda convinced the leader to cancel an upcoming amphibious exercise near Okinawa that I was directly involved with 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 US administrations to accommodate the PRC for decades.

Japanese Special Defense Force personnel marched in a parade in Asaka, Japan, in a file photo. Image: AFP Forum via EPA

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 US-Japan effort, even though the need has been obvious for years.

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

Chinese PLA Navy soldiers on a naval vessel in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

And where would this leave the Americans?

US forces have operated on the assumption that 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 US and Japanese military operations in the East China Sea and beyond.

And 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.

Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine Corps officer and former US diplomat, currently is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and the Center for Security Policy.