China’s Robust Ambitions: The Defense of Senkaku Is an Urgent Issue—The Successes of Globalization and Gaps in Domestic Defense - Discuss Japan
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No.64, Diplomacy  Jun. 22, 2021

China’s Robust Ambitions: The Defense of Senkaku Is an Urgent Issue—The Successes of Globalization and Gaps in Domestic Defense

Watanabe Tsuneo, Senior Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation


Watanabe Tsuneo, Senior Fellow of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation

In addition to the intense intrusion of public vessels into the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands and the pursuit of Japanese fishing vessels around these waters through China’s Coast Guard Law, the implementation of this law (February 2021) has further increased concerns towards China among Japan, the United States, and the international community. This is because this law recognizes China’s right to the use of weapons with Coast Guard vessels in the areas considered to be under Chinese jurisdiction (China claims ownership of the Senkaku Islands).

These concerns were reflected in a joint statement at the Japan-U.S. Security Consultative Committee (“2+2”), held in Tokyo on March 16 by officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense in Japan and the State Department and Defense Department in the United States. This statement expressed a deep concern with the recent actions of the China Coast Guard in the region that give rise to disorder, and discussed the unwavering commitment from the United States in regards to Japan’s defense under Article V of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which includes the Senkaku Islands. In this statement, the officials investigated Japan’s urgent issue of the defense of the Senkaku Islands – an issue that has greatly intensified – from the viewpoint of the preservation of both the Japan-US alliance and global security and Japan’s own defense system, and proposes countermeasures.

The Heated Exchange Between the United States and China

At the first talks between top diplomats from the United States and China under the Biden administration held in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18, two days after the Japan-U.S. 2+2, a heated exchange was shown to the world through cameras right from the beginning. Both the United States and China summoned a camera from the media, which had at that point withdrawn from the meeting, to report on their remarks and broadcast this to the world.

However, each country had quite a different purpose. China wanted to show their confident disagreement with the United States’ unjust and disrespectful attitude towards the Chinese people, President Xi Jinping, and the rest of the leadership of the Communist Party of China. Chinese media actively broadcast the bravery of Yang Jiechi, a diplomat of the Communist Party of China, as he took issue with the US.

On the other hand, the United States was focused not only on the American people but also its allies and partner countries. The US. wished to show politicians and people who were threatened by the actions of China that ignored international rules that the US stood on the side of protecting the international rules-based order.

At the beginning of the talks, US Secretary of State Blinken said, “The alternative to a rules-based order is a world in which might makes right and winners take all, and that would be a far more violent and unstable world for all of us,” and confirmed the United States’ commitment to a “rules-based order.” At the Japan-U.S. 2+2 held two days earlier, participants committed to opposing coercion and destabilizing behavior toward others in the region, which undermines the rules-based international system, and also confirmed their support for unimpeded lawful commerce and respect for international law, including freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful uses of the sea. They also reiterated their objections to China’s unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea, showing that, at the very least, Japanese opinion was reflected in Secretary Blinken’s comments. In response to this, diplomat Yang objected, saying that the United States and European countries did not represent the world opinion.

Globalization of the Senkaku Islands Dispute and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Initiative

Japan has positioned the dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands as a common problem shared with the United States, and the protection of the Indo-Pacific region and the world order as something that the international community ought to protect – in other words, they succeeded in globalizing the issue. This was not an easy path. Due to the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the Senkaku Islands (Uotsuri Island, Kitakojima Island and Minamikojima Island) from a private citizen in September 2012, Chinese public vessels began to enter the contiguous zone almost every day, barring rough weather. Despite the fact that in 2010, it was announced under the Obama administration that the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty applied to Senkaku, at the time, many Americans and the international community believed the issue to be one between Japan and China, and there were many who argued that this risked getting the US involved.

But after the Filipino government released photos in 2014 of reclamation by China on Johnson South Reef in the South China Sea, a sense of impending crisis was shared between ordinary Americans and the world opinion due to the reclamation of land on reefs and the possession of that land, clear violations by China of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as well as the development of military bases on the reclaimed land.

During this time, Japan announced the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Initiative and in cooperation with Australia, India, Canada, Europe, ASEAN countries, and other allies and partners, has continued its efforts to share awareness of maintaining the rules-based world order (If the Japan-Korea relationship had not worsened, South Korea would’ve joined in this as well…). Specifically, policy was promoted centered on three central pillars: (1) the promotion and establishment of fundamental principles such as the rule of law, freedom of navigation and free trade; (2) the pursuit of economic prosperity through enhancing connectivity, including through Quality Infrastructure development in accordance with international standards; and (3) initiatives for ensuring peace and stability that include assistance for capacity building on maritime law enforcement, anti-piracy measures, disaster risk reduction and non-proliferation. (From the “Diplomatic Bluebook 2019”)

For example, Japan contributed to the creation of framework, such as the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force participating in joint training with the United States, and sometimes Australia and India, in the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean. The Japanese government also supplied patrol ships and related equipment to certain countries and trained personnel to operate the equipment. The countries that were supplied with patrol craft through official development assistance (ODA) included South China Sea-facing Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, as well as Indian Ocean-facing Sri Lanka, Djibouti and Kenya, becoming no less than a measure towards contributing to a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

On top of this, the non-profit Nippon Foundation supplied patrol ships to the Republic of Palau, an island nation in the Pacific, for free, and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, to which the author belongs, offered support in building competency in training crew members for the patrol ships in partnership with the Japan Agency of Maritime Education and Training for Seafarers (JMETS) (I’m boasting but in the materials presented by the State Department upon Secretary Blinken’s visit to Japan, the Sasakawa Peace Foundation was mentioned alongside American organizations as a non-profit organization that contributed towards making the Japan-US relationship closer).

The joint statement from the 2018 ASEAN Summit mentioned maintaining maritime security and freedom of navigation, as well as the resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, and prior to the Japan-ASEAN Summit that Prime Minister Suga joined via the internet in November, 2020, Japan regularly confirmed this principle with ASEAN. With the signing of the Japan-EU Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) in 2018, Japan and the EU agreed to “contribute jointly to international peace and stability through the promotion of peaceful settlement of disputes in conformity with the principles of justice and international law,” with the preservation of maritime security included in the areas of cooperation.

In fact, France and the UK dispatched their own naval vessels to the South China Sea and participated in joint training with Japan, the US, Australia, India, and other countries. There have even been reports recently that India is also planning to dispatch naval vessels to the South China Sea. Japan has positioned its dispute over the Senkaku Islands with China as a challenge against the global rules-based order by growing the EU’s interest.

Recently, this has resulted in the joint statement from a virtual summit held on March 12 between Australia, India, Japan and the United States (“the Quad”).

Together, we commit to promoting a free, openrules-based order, rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. We support the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity. (bold added by author)

The Senkaku Paradox and Japan’s Defense Responsibility

In this way, Japan has organically connected the territorial defense of Senkaku and Japan with stability in the Indo-Pacific region and the preservation of the global order through rule of law. We can say that Japan succeeded in globalizing the defense of Senkaku if we focus on defending the islands, but we cannot forget that Japan’s responsibility to defend Senkaku has increased. Flaws in Japan’s defense of Senkaku will lead to an intensification of confrontation between the United States and China and will destabilize the region and the world.

Following the Japan-U.S.-Australia-India Summit, the Japan-U.S. 2+2, and the U.S.-China diplomatic talks that we looked at earlier, Deputy Director Zhao of the Foreign Ministry Information Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in China criticized Japan, saying that Japan “has become a strategic dependency by voluntarily currying favor with the US.” There is no need to respond to these kinds of provocative statements, but we must keep in mind the reality that from China’s position, it has become a more pressing issue to create alienation among the Japan-US partnership, which is expanding globally from the Indo-Pacific region. Unlike the US-Soviet Cold War, where West Germany was on the front lines, Japan is now located on the frontlines of the US-China conflict.

We can see that the defense of Senkaku is a subtle issue between Japan and the United States from the concept of a “Senkaku paradox” given by Michael O’Hanlon, a researcher of US strategies. He gave the name “Senkaku paradox” to the current situation where China and Russia are increasing their influence on the world and conflicts in world security are deepening, and used this as the title for a book published in 2019. His awareness of the issue is shown in the subtitle for this book: Risking Great Power War Over Small Stakes. If China were to create a fait accompli by capturing the Senkaku Islands without any loss of life and without a clear militaristic invasion similar to the hybrid warfare Russia employed with the annexation of Crimea, this would make it more difficult for the United States to use military force. This is because the leadership in the US would have to explain why they risked an all-out war with China to recapture an uninhabited island. There are fewer hurdles now with public opinion in the US, as feelings toward China have worsened compared to before, but use of military force is still difficult considering the risk of an all-out war with China.

Furthermore, with Russia’s hybrid warfare, political maneuvering of public opinion played an important role, but China is also quite formidable in this area. Appealing to the attitude of the US public against war and in favor of “America First” and the anti-American nationalism present in Japan could give China a good opportunity to drive a wedge between the United States and Japan. This wedge ought to also be advantageous for the “leader” Russia, too. 

There is also a dangerous gap in Japan’s current defense system that might make China want to try to drive the wedge between Japan and the United States over the defense of Senkaku.

What Japan Should Do to Defend Senkaku

The Japanese government has spoken about a seamless response to the gray zone in the National Defense Program Guidelines for FY2019 and beyond and in its annual white paper “Defense of Japan,” but in reality, it is necessary to fill in the gaps in Japan’s defense system by improving the system through legislative reform. Up until now, I have advocated for three policy projects as a leader, but I would like to offer further proposals based on these.

In his contribution, “The Establishment of China’s Coast Guard Law and Japan’s Response” (January 2021) to the Japan Forum on International Relations, an independent think tank, Professor Sakamoto Shigeki of Doshisha University (Professor Emeritus of Kobe University) raised two issues following the establishment of China’s Coast Guard Law and proposed that the Japanese government respond to them. The first is the case of Chinese public vessels pursuing Japanese fishing vessels in the waters around Senkaku and patrol vessels of the Japan Coast Guard interrupting the actions of these Chinese public vessels. It cannot be ruled out that China may use weapons as an act of interference as found in the Coast Guard Law, and so Japan must be prepared for such a response. The second is how Japan will respond in the event that Chinese maritime militia secretly land on an island in the Senkaku Islands during a time of peace, raise the Chinese national flag, and refuse to respond to the Japan Coast Guard’s request for withdrawal, keeping in mind the risks of the Senkaku paradox for the US as mentioned above.

At a joint panel of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)’s National Defense Division and Research Commission on National Security in response to the first case, the Japanese government indicated their opinion that it is possible for “harmful shots” by Japan Coast Guard on a foreign vessel if that vessel enters into territorial waters with the intent of invading the Senkaku Islands. This is significant in that they are aware of the issues of the first case, but there was no response to the second issue, and there is a risk of contradicting Japan’s attitude up until now of making the Senkaku issue one of the global legal order.

In an interview article entitled, “The Risk of Violating International Law with Japan’s Response to China’s Coast Guard Law” published on Nikkei Business Online (on March 18, 2021), former Commander in Chief of the Self Defense Fleet, Koda Yoji declared that “we must consider the curiosity of China’s implementation of the Coast Guard Law not like ‘trees’ as in the use of weapons, but like a ‘forest’ in how we protect the Senkaku Islands.” He questions the Japanese government’s explanation to LDP when they said that “force through use of weapons may be possible to suppress an opponent whose actions are recognized as crimes” in response to the landing of a foreign public vessel on the Senkaku Islands. He points out that landing on the Senkaku Islands is an act of aggression by a state, and that responding to foreign public vessels or warships with police authority based on Japanese domestic criminal law goes against international law.

In other words, it is necessary for Japan to cast off legal restraints that do not apply to the world and that occur from domestic political circumstances, and create a maritime defense system based on international standards. Without this, Japan will undermine its results in securing the support of the United States and the world opinion for the defense of Senkaku.

I do not have any objections to the three points Koda made: (1) the relaxing of requirements for Japan to officially announce the defense operations of the Self-Defense Forces; (2) the revision of the Japan Coast Guard Law and the specification of allowing defense operations by Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels and coast guard officers in the field to protect Japan’s sovereignty until the Self-Defense Forces have been dispatched for defense; and (3) that the Maritime Self-Defense Forces can perform cautionary surveillance during times of peace.

In other words, in the future, it is absolutely vital that the Japan Coast Guard prepare for a seamless response to deal with public vessels under China’s Coast Guard Law in the field. Koda further indicated that the Japan Coast Guard may deal with unexpected special military forces, rather than public vessels, under China’s Coast Guard Law. This is something that is conceivable if China tries to actually take the Senkaku Islands.

Seamlessly Assigning Roles to the Japan Coast Guard and Self-Defense Forces

In regards to these issues, the first issue is in the assigning of territorial defense to the Japan Coast Guard, something that was left out of the current Japan Coast Guard Law. At the same time, it is also necessary to change the laws and systems so that the Self-Defense Forces can quickly respond in the event of an invasion by special forces, as the Coast Guard would be unable to respond. In a gray zone conflict with an enemy that secretly moved into the territory, the current system would simply give the enemy time to create a fait accompli, as the Minister of Defense would give the order for the Self-Defense Forces to engage in defense operations only after acknowledging a clearly aggressive action. Just as Koda indicated, it is necessary to change the Self-Defense Forces Law to clearly allow the Self-Defense Forces to perform cautionary surveillance during times of peace and to create a system where the Coast Guard and Maritime Self-Defense Forces can seamlessly and rapidly take action in the waters around the Senkaku Islands.

If you look closely at the road ahead, it is necessary to convert Japan’s system to the common international standard among armed forces around the world, establishing prior rules of engagement during times of peace and allowing the Self-Defense Forces to quickly move when necessary. Possible political resistance might include the idea that the risk of war will increase by removing political restraints against military action by the Self-Defense Forces. But just as we have examined here, if the Self-Defense Forces cannot quickly respond, it will show China a gap in the system and will clearly increase the risk of military conflict between Japan and China, and therefore the US and China. To dispel any concerns as mentioned before, it will be important to apply these measures only to the area surrounding the Senkaku Islands, where a crisis is clearly expected in the near future.

For example, in an interview with Jiji Press (February 21), Sato Masahisa, Director of Foreign Affairs Division of the LDP Policy Research Council, said that “the government says that they will dispatch the Self-Defense Forces for maritime police action and public security operations when they cannot respond with the Coast Guard’s capabilities, but the SDF’s right to use weapons is the same (as the police), so in all likelihood, they would not be able to respond,” and I share the same concerns. He also stated, “A new Territorial Security Law should be established, an area should be designated in advance, and the Self-Defense Forces should police the area with police authority. If compelled, it would be best if the right to self-defense was invoked instantly and they could switch to defensive actions.” This is surely a realistic move.

If invasion of the Senkaku Islands by special forces is allowed and it becomes necessary to recapture the islands, it will bring about the dangerous Senkaku paradox with the United States, and the risk of an information war extending to Japanese and American citizens and to the international community cannot be underestimated.

When you consider these risks and lost costs, the best strategy for Japan is to fill in the current systematic gaps as soon as possible. This does not require revisions to Article 9 of the Constitution, and does not require massive defense spending. That is why there is concern that Japan will be abandoned by the United States, an ally up until this point, and by world opinion if an issue arises due to Japan’s inaction.

Finally, what I would like to emphasize is that defending the Senkaku islands during the US-China conflict is an important part of the multidimensional capabilities to control China by Japan and the United States, which also includes land and sea-based armed forces, cybersecurity, space, and regular and nuclear missile defense, and has a mutual effect on other issues of defense. We focused on the system of defense for the Senkaku Islands here, but improvements to Japan’s counterattack capabilities, discussed by Kitaoka Shinichi (Professor Emeritus, University of Tokyo) and Mori Satoru (Professor of Hosei University) in the April issue of Chuokoron, are also major issues that have an effect on the defense of the Senkaku Islands. For example, if Japan had the capabilities to strike back on its own, the breadth of Japan’s deterrent force would increase, and would make it more difficult for China to try and capture the Senkaku Islands. It would also lower the chances of the Japan-US alliance being tested.


The policy proposals, parts of which are reflected in this article, were put together by the author as project leader along with former Commander in Chief of the Self Defenese Fleet, Koda Yoji, who was mentioned above, as a project member. However, the opinions in this article are solely those of the author. Policy proposal with the Tokyo Foundation: “Maritime Security and the Right of Self-Defense in Peacetime: Proposals for a National Security Strategy and the New National Defense Program Guidelines” (May 2014). Policy proposals with the Sasakawa Peace Foundation: “Policy Proposals for Implementing ‘Proactive Contributions to Peace I – Strengthening the defense system to protect our country’” (September 2018) and “Policy Proposals for Implementing ‘Proactive Contributions to Peace II ― For a free and open Indo-Pacific’” (February 2020).


Translated from “‘Kyoken Chugoku no Yabo’ Senkaku Boei, Kikkin no Kadai—Gurobaruka no seiko to kokunai boei no suki (“China’s Robust Ambitions” The Defense of Senkaku: an Urgent Issue—The Successes of Globalization and Gaps in Domestic Defense),” Chuokoron, May 2021, pp. 118-125 (Courtesy of Chuo Koron Shinsha) [June 2021]


  • Watanabe Tsuneo
  • Sasakawa Peace Foundation
  • Senkaku Islands
  • China
  • Coast Guard Law
  • Japan-U.S. Security Consultative Committee
  • 2+2
  • Japan-U.S. Security Treaty
  • Free and Open Indo-Pacific Initiative
  • the Quad
  • Senkaku Paradox
  • Self Defense Fleet
  • JSDF
  • Japan Coast Guard