Japan’s Defense Minister Counters Beijing as Obama Visits Asia

Victor Robert Lee
China and the World
4 min readApr 26, 2014


Photo: Yonaguni Island protesters face off against police and secret service personnel in an attempt to block Japanese Defense Minister Onodera’s attendance at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new military base on the island. April 19th, 2014. Image by Victor Robert Lee.

By Victor Robert Lee

Japan’s defense minister Itsunori Onodera is an exceptionally busy man during this week of President Obama’s state visit to Tokyo. On April 19th Onodera oversaw the groundbreaking ceremony for a new military base and radar installation on Yonaguni Island, Japan’s westernmost territory, only 110 kilometers from Taiwan and the closest inhabited spot to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, hotly disputed by China and Japan.

Onodera’s attendance at the ceremony was delayed by thirty minutes due to 70 protesters against the new base, who jostled with security personnel to block the minister’s vehicle. The Yonaguni base will be the first expansion of Japan’s military footprint in more than forty years. In his speech on the small, sparsely populated island, Onodera also suggested the possibility of building additional bases on its southwest islands, which lie closest to China.

One of four E-2C Hawkeye aircraft in a new air surveillance squadron at Japan’s air base at Naha City, Okinawa. April 21st, 2014. Photo by Victor Robert Lee.

The following day at Naha Air Base on the island of Okinawa, Minister Onodera launched a new squadron of four E-2C Hawkeye early warning aircraft to increase surveillance of the skies between China and Japan’s southern islands, which include the disputed Senkakus/Diaoyus. Underscoring the need for the new squadron, the Ministry of Defense reported earlier this month that in the twelve-month period ending March 2014, it had scrambled fighter jets in response to Chinese aircraft approaching Japan’s airspace a record high of 415 times, up from 306 in the prior twelve months; the ministry said “many” of the Chinese aircraft were fighter jets.

P-3 Orion anti-submarine/maritime surveillance aircraft (right) and F-15 fighter jets (left) at Japan’s Naha Air Base, Okinawa. April 21st, 2014. Photo by Victor Robert Lee.

Throughout the week the defense ministry has had to respond to repeated incursions by Chinese ships not only in the area of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, but closer, near Japan’s diminutive Kume Island, which lies 80 kilometers from Japan’s militarily critical island of Okinawa. Japanese news reports described a Chinese oceanographic research ship dropping a tethered device into the sea near Kume, which marks the northern limit of the Miyako Strait, one of the few channels through the “first chain of islands” encircling China that China’s navy can use to transit away from its coastline and into the Pacific Ocean. It is also a preferred route for the People’s Liberation Army/Navy to move its submarines into the Pacific.

On the southern side of the strait, Miyako Island itself hosts a Japan Self Defense Forces radar installation, to monitor traffic through the strait and provide other forms of electronic intelligence [see photo]. In November of 2013, Japan’s military positioned Type-88 surface-to-ship missiles on Miyako for the first time, for what were described as “temporary” exercises. The missiles have sufficient range to target surface vessels anywhere within the Miyako Strait.

Japan Self Defense Forces radar base on Miyako Island, southern Okinawa prefecture, at the southern edge of the Miyako Strait. April, 2014. Photo by Victor Robert Lee.

The missile exercises coincided with a Rand report that suggested the U.S. and its allies use land-based anti-ship missiles at choke-points in the Asia-Pacific region to restrict movements of China’s navy in the event of conflict. China’s Communist Party-affiliated Global Times newspaper declared on its front page that Japan’s transfer of the missiles to Miyako was “an unprecedented move that experts say is targeted at blocking the Chinese navy.”

Quite apart from positioning missiles and radar to counter China, Defense Minister Onodera’s scrambling this week has another dimension. Three days after his Yonaguni scuffle with anti-base protesters, 149 Japanese government representatives paid memorial visits to Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine, a flashpoint for Chinese and Korean outrage because it honors not only 2.5 million Japanese war dead, but also 14 “Class A” WWII war criminals. This visit occurred the day before President Obama arrived in Tokyo, part of a trip intended to signal U.S. support of its allies in Asia. Indeed, on his first day in Japan, Obama for the first time stated unequivocally that the hot-button Senkaku Islands “are administered by Japan and therefore fall within the scope of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. And we oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands.”

Cabinet official Katsunobu Kato visiting Yasukuni shrine on April 22nd, 2014; he was among 149 Japanese lawmakers and cabinet officers to attend ceremonies that day at Yasukuni. Photo by Victor Robert Lee.

With that strong statement Obama came through for Japan on this occasion, but the continuing Yasukuni shrine debacle (Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself visited the shrine in December) and the sentiments it conveys work against the U.S.-Japan alliance vis-à-vis China. Defense Minister Onodera may well be fighting hard to create a bulwark against Beijing, but his comrades in the Abe government seem to be fighting equally hard to create an image of 1930's Japan, which offers their country no security.

(A shortened version of this article was first published in The Diplomat on April 24th, 2014.)

Victor Robert Lee reports on the Asia-Pacific region and is the author of the espionage novel Performance Anomalies (2013, Perimeter Six Press).