Life may seem tranquil on Japan’s remote Yonaguni Island, where wild horses graze and tourists dive to spot hammerhead sharks, but China’s recent massive military exercises have shaken locals.
The western island is just 110 kilometers (70 miles) from Taiwan, and a Chinese missile fired during exercises last month landed not far from the Yonaguni coast.
“Everyone is nervous,” Shigenori Takenishi, head of the island’s fishermen’s association, told AFP.
“Even if we don’t talk about it, we always remember the fear we felt, the shock.”
He told fishing boats to stay in port during drills following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, in defiance of warnings from Beijing.
The incident was the latest reminder of how growing Chinese assertiveness has affected Yonaguni, shifting the debate to a controversial military presence on the island.
People said that Yonaguni was defended by two guns, one for each policeman stationed there.
But since 2016, the island has been home to a base for Japan’s military, the Self-Defense Forces, which was established despite initial objections from locals.
The maritime and air surveillance base is home to 170 soldiers who, together with their families, make up 15% of Yonaguni’s 1,700 residents.
An “electronic warfare” unit should also be installed there by March 2024.
“When we see Chinese military activity today, we think we got our base just in time,” Yonaguni Mayor Kenichi Itokazu told AFP.
“We managed to send a message to China.”
“Can they really help us?
This view has not always been so prevalent on the island.
Yonaguni is part of Okinawa Prefecture, where resentment against the military presence is traditionally high.
A quarter of the region’s population perished in the Battle of Okinawa in World War II in 1945, and it remained under American occupation until 1972.
Today, Okinawa is home to most US bases in Japan.
Yonaguni is closer to Taiwan, Seoul and even Beijing than the Japanese capital Tokyo.
Realizing its vulnerability, authorities have built a military presence on the Nansei island chain, which stretches 1,200 kilometers from Japan’s main islands to Yonaguni.
In addition to the security benefits, the government argued that a base would bring exceptional economic benefits to the 30-square-kilometre (11-square-mile) island.
Local officials once believed that Yonaguni’s economic future lay with Taiwan and other nearby trade hubs, even campaigning to become a “special zone for inter-regional trade”.
But the government rejected this and instead began in 2007 to pave the way at the grassroots.
Support for the plan was bolstered by a diplomatic crisis with Beijing in 2010, and in 2015 around 60% of Yonaguni residents backed the base in a referendum.
Since then, Chinese saber blows and a series of maritime incidents have helped build support.
“Hardly anyone is against the base now,” said Shigeru Yonahara, 60, a resident who has supported the base.
There are holdouts, however, some of whom fear the base could make Yonaguni a target instead, particularly if China seeks to forcibly bring Taiwan under its control.
“If there is a crisis, will they protect those who live here? And can they really help us in the event of an invasion of Taiwan? said Masakatsu Uehara, a 62-year-old fisherman.
“It’s a question of deterrence”
Supporters and critics agree that the base has changed Yonaguni, including the lights of the radar installation that rival the starry skies above the island.
A long-awaited incinerator that started operating last year has been funded almost entirely by the Department of Defense, and base rent helps pay for free lunches at island schools.
Yonaguni has no high school and limited employment. It suffered decades of decline after its flourishing trade ties with Taiwan were severed after World War II.
Today, taxes paid by base residents make up one-fifth of Yonaguni’s income.
But not everyone sees the changes as positive, including city council member Chiyoki Tasato, who has long opposed the grassroots.
He resents the fact that Japanese military families can influence politics by voting in local elections, and argues that the base’s economic impact makes it difficult for residents to speak out freely on the issue.
They “cannot say openly that they are against the base, because the economic situation is not good,” Tasato told AFP.
“We prefer to think about what we are going to eat tomorrow.”
For Mayor Itokazu however, there is no doubt about the economic boost provided by the base.
And he added that the security situation makes his presence an obvious necessity.
“As the saying goes, ‘If you want peace, prepare for war.’ It is a matter of deterrence.
Category: China, Japan, Taiwan
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