Japanese gov’t urged to seek arbitral ruling on disputed islands
OKINAWA, Japan—Hoping to halt Chinese adventurism into Japanese territory on the East China Sea, Ishigaki City is urging the government to assert its claim over the Senkaku Islands by seeking an arbitral ruling similar to that obtained by the Philippines’.
Maintaining that conflict and economic repercussions are unavoidable consequences of asserting their country’s right over the islands, Ishigaki City council member and Yaeyama Defense Association secretary general Toita Yoshiyuki said that it was about time to check China’s expansionist behavior on the disputed territorial waters.
Their worst fear: a South China Sea-like situation where the Chinese build military installations on disputed territory at will, practically ramming its sovereignty claim down other claimant-countries’ throats.
Toita noted the increasing number of intrusions by Chinese ships, fishing boats escorted by coast guard vessels, into Japanese territorial waters near the Senkakus, which -he said- the Japanese government should act quickly and decisively on.
The Senkakus on the East China Sea are made up of five islands: Uotsuri; Minamikojima; Kitakojima; Kuba; and Taisho, and three reefs, which fall under the administration of Ishigaki City and are generally uninhabited. China and Taiwan have been claiming “territorial sovereignty” over the islands since the 1970s.
READ: Japan names 5 disputed islets in East China Sea
Speaking through an interpreter, he said that it was unfortunate that the Japanese national government was inclined to place priority on avoiding conflict and on economic relations with China than assert its ownership of the Senkaku Islands.
He maintained that the Japanese government should at least show its displeasure on Chinese expansionist activities on the East China Sea, where the Senkaku Islands are concerned.
Hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels escorted by China’s coast guard, have been driving away Ishegaki fishermen from shallow water on the contiguous zone between the Senkakus and Ishegaki Island.
“China has been ignoring the claims of other countries in the South China Sea. They have been building artificial islands, runways. They may be trying to do the same thing on the East China Sea,” Toita remarked, citing reclamation and the construction of runways on the disputed Scarborough Shoal being claimed by the Philippines.
The Japanese coast guard has noted the increasing frequency of Chinese incursions since 2012 and has responded by adding more patrol ships to discourage such activities.
But a coastguard official admitted that while the intrusions were becoming “routinized” an incident in August last year was out of the ordinary when around 200 Chinese boats, escorted by 15 Chinese coast guard vessels, entered Japanese territorial waters.
During the incident, he said that they warned the Chinese boats that they were entering Japanese territory and received the response from the Chinese coastguard that they were in Chinese territory instead.
Such incidents have caused Ishegaki fishermen to stay away from their previous fishing area near the Senkakus, according to Ishegaki mayor Nakayama Yoshitaka.
Nakayama said that fishermen have been unable to go near the Senkakus since Chinese incursions began.
Speaking through an interpreter, Nakayama pointed out, “It is not really officially banned to go there for fishing or we do not really advise them not to go, they just decided not to go.”
He explained that the fishermen did not want to make the Japanese coast guard’s job more difficult as it is by having to be protected by the maritime patrol unit.
“Fishermen used to go fishing in an area around the Senkaku islands. However now whenever they go, Chinese (coastguard) ships come close to their ships. They feel in danger,” Nakayama said, adding that the fishermen actually stopped fishing last year when the number of Chinese ships increased.
Ishegaki fishermen for fear of getting capsized, either deliberately or accidentally, by the bigger Chinese vessels have fallen back to deep water and single-rod fishing.
According to fisherman Namisato Manaba, 53, apart from the Chinese vessels they were also unable to go because of the absence of a port in the Senkakus where they could dock for shelter if they are caught in bad weather. It takes about five to six hours to go to the Senkaku Islands from Ishegaki City.
The absence of a pier or port has compelled them to bring only small boats for fishing expeditions on deep water between the Senkaku Islands and Ishegaki.
He pointed out that since the nationalization of Senkaku Island, it was loaned to the Japanese government by a private land owner in 2012, made it “difficult” for the fisher folk.
“What is scary for us is when we go there, Chinese official ships aggressively approach us. We are afraid of a collision with fishing boats much larger than ours. The Japanese coastguard is busy chasing Chinese vessels and can’t do enough to protect us. So it is very scary for us. That is why we stopped (going near the Senkakus),” Namisato pointed out.
He recalled experiencing a near accident four years ago which made him stop sailing near the Senkakus, saying, “I do not know if they (Chinese ships) came to us intentionally or not…I had to just run away. No way I can beat that huge boat. I just had to run away.” He was on a 10-tonne fishing boat and the Chinese vessel was around 1,500 tonnes.
For his part, Gushiken Yuji, 60, said that whatever they catch goes to the mainland of Okinawa and their sales have decreased. He said that some 20 or 30 years ago the catch was good in the shallow area near the Senkakus, declared the contiguous zone, of the East China Sea.
They were able to bring in big boats and engage in net fishing, catching marlins, tuna, bonito, and red snappers.
According to the Yaeyama fishermen’s cooperative, the total catch in a year in the area which has been overrun by the bigger Chinese boats was at 2.6 billion Yen.
“Now almost none,” Gushiken said, pointing out that they are currently into single-rod fishing for tuna and bonitos instead in deep water closer to Ishigaki.
But the fishermen said that if the Japanese government built a port or a pier on the Senkakus, they would probably return to the area “because it becomes safer during bad weather.”
Mayor Nakayama pointed out that his city wants to develop the Senkakus for the livelihood of Ishigaki residents but the Japanese government has disallowed anyone from landing on the islands to avoid provoking China.
He said that basically the development plan involved the construction of a port or pier, the area being a good fishing spot.
Even then the national government has agreed to the deployment of surveillance units from the Japanese Self-Defense Force (JSDF), mostly the Air Self-Defense Force. The deployment of a Ground Self-Defense Force to Ishigaki, he said, has not been decided yet since it might give China a reason to deploy its warships.
Nakayama pointed out that, while JSDF deployment has been undertaken by the Ministry of Defense, many of his constituents feel that the national government should build tangible facilities on the islands to establish Japan’s sovereignty over them.
Toita, for his part, maintained that Japan should seek the intercession of the international court of justice to assert its ownership of the Senkaku Islands instead of remaining in a state of denial that a territorial dispute exists.
“I believe we haven’t done enough to appeal to the international community,” he said in Japanese.
“Even if we create diplomatic conflict, Japan should not give in…Now we need to do what we have to do, even if it creates conflict,” Toita pointed out.
He further said, “China can make a military facility in this area which would mean a national security loss than economic loss if it happens. The Japanese should understand that and we should raise awareness over territorial rights.”
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