After Japan gets new defence minister, China sails near disputed islands

China's navy conducting drills in the South China Sea. 2013. Asitimes / Wikimedia Commons
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By Loke Hoe Yeong

Just two days after the appointment of a new defence minister for Japan known for her hawkish stance, a fleet of vessels from China sailed near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The Japanese government has lodged its protest with Beijing.

According to Japan’s foreign ministry, a fleet of six Chinese coastguard ships and about 230 fishing vessels sailed near the disputed islands in the East China Sea yesterday (6 August). Furthermore, Japan’s coastguard said that three of the six Chinese coastguard ships that sailed near the islands appeared to be armed.

“This is a unilateral act that raises tensions, and it is unacceptable to us,” Kenji Kanasugi, the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau director-general of Japan’s Foreign Ministry, told diplomats at China’s Embassy in Japan.

This incident has come just days after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appointed Tomomi Inada, the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) former policy chief known for her hawkish and nationalistic stances, as Japan’s new defence minister. Abe, fresh from his recent electoral victory which saw his party’s majority increased, was conducting a cabinet reshuffle which otherwise saw most of his key colleagues in place.

Japan’s “Joan of Arc”

Inada has courted controversy with her views which have rattled Japan’s neighbours. She frequently visits the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honours Japan’s war dead and is a symbol of Japan’s militaristic past. As the anniversary this year of Japan’s defeat in World War II on 15 August looms, the fallout behind her visit to the shrine – if she does indeed make such a visit again having now assumed the role of defence minister – will be further amplified.

More recently, she has waded into the “comfort women” issue when she said that a statue outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul which honours victims of Japan’s wartime sex abuse should be removed. This and other nationalistic stances of hers have led to her being refused entry into South Korea at one point.

On her second day of work, Inada was accused by China of misrepresenting history after she avoided saying whether members of the Japanese military had massacred civilians in China during the lead-up to World War II.

The 57-year-old Inada is the second woman to assume the office of Japan’s defence minister. She has been dubbed by Shinzo Abe as the “Joan of Arc” of Japan, in reference to the 15th century French martyr. Inada is a close party ally of Abe.

She has written of her belief that Japan should acquire the use of nuclear weapons. And as would be expected, she is a strong supporter of Abe’s move to amend Japan’s pacifist constitution.

Japan’s perceptions of its security environment

Tomomi Inada might be a controversial pick for Japan’s defence minister, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s move was made in response to the changes in the security environment of Japan.

After all, Inada’s appointment was made on 3 August, just hours literally after North Korea fired a test missile which landed in the territorial waters of Japan – the first time this has happened. Given this context, it is hard not to read Abe’s pick for defence minister as a direct repartee to the progenitors of the security threats that Japan faces.

The next day, in fact, Inada said that “North Korea is repeating militarily provocative acts such as nuclear testing and a series of ballistic missile launches.”

There is more to the eye than the North Korea threat. Just last week, China had criticised Japan’s annual defence white paper, which adopted an increasingly tougher tone on the territorial disputes involving Japan.

The white paper accused China of “changing the status quo by relying on its strength” and expressing “deep concern” over China’s activities in the East and South China Sea.

Less than a month since South China Sea ruling

Already on Friday (5 August), the Japanese foreign ministry had complained of Chinese coastguard ships and fishing vessels encroaching into the territorial waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Shinsuke Sugiyama, Japan’s Vice Foreign Minister, summoned the Chinese ambassador to Japan, Cheng Yonghua. In response, the spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry issued a statement that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands and its surrounding waters.

It is also hard not to make a connection between the latest incidents in the East China Sea with the recent ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on the Philippines’s case against China in the South China Sea dispute. That ruling was released barely a month ago.

While Japan is not a claimant in the South China Sea, it has supported countries like the Philippines and Vietnam who are in dispute with China over the water. Japan has also providing patrol boats to the South China Sea, in additional to backing the United States’ naval operations in the South China Sea.