'They will come in and take us over': Small tropical island of Ishigaki is latest flashpoint between China and Japan

As the Chinese navy flexes its muscles, tensions are growing in a Japanese isle near the disputed territory

Lush and sleepy, the subtropical island of Ishigaki shows little sign of preparing for war with Asia’s rising superpower China. Dotted with sugar cane fields and surrounded by coral reefs, the 85-square-mile Pacific speck hovers on the far fringes of Japan’s south-west territories, 1,000 miles from Tokyo.

Tourists stroll around the bright new airport. The atmosphere across the island and its population of 48,000 is gently welcoming and relaxed. And that, says Makoto Nakashinjo bitterly, is the problem.

“We’ve been at peace for so many years that people here are complacent,” says Mr Nakashinjo, who edits a local, right-leaning newspaper called Yaeyama Nippo. He believes an increasingly assertive China, some 120 miles away, is picking a fight with Japan. “They’are waiting for our strength to weaken and then they will come in and take us over. The central government must show now that we are strong and can defend ourselves.”

For now, the only visible sign that Tokyo is heeding that advice is the fleet of Japanese coastguard vessels crowding Ishigaki harbour. The boats have been sent to protect a group of goat-infested, uninhabited rocks known here as the Senkakus, about 100 miles away. For nine months, the coastguard has played cat-and-mouse with ever-larger surveillance ships from China, which calls the islands Diaoyu, and insists they’re Chinese. Occasionally the two sides have come close to clashing.

“Escalation is always possible,” warns Tetsuo Kotani, a maritime affairs expert with the Japan Institute of International Affairs, a government-linked think tank. He calls the situation around the disputed islands “very scary”. “A clash would be a huge diplomatic crisis.  We just don’t know how the escalation will start.” War, he warns, “cannot be ruled out”.

The US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations condemned China’s high stakes poker game around these islands this week, urging “self-restraint” but warning that Washington will oppose “any unilateral action” undermining Japan’s claim. The sharp end of that warning was a set of unprecedented war games in California this month, in which US and Japanese troops practised retaking a remote island airport from enemy forces. The drills were clearly aimed at China.

This week, China begins its largest-ever joint naval drills – with Russia. Though Beijing is denying that the exercises are aimed at any third parties, Tokyo is unlikely to see it that way.

Historically and culturally close to China (and Taiwan), these islands, stretching some 600 miles up to Okinawa, have long been buffeted by shifts in the geopolitical balance of power. In the 19th century, they were annexed by Japan as it fortified its sea flanks. Japan’s ambitions to become a colonial power in Asia ended in cataclysm: during the 1945 battle of Okinawa, over 120,000 locals died in what many here believe was a cynical attempt by Tokyo to stall a US invasion of the Japanese mainland.  

Many on Ishigaki remain wary of any military entanglement after the island was extensively bombed during the war. A bilingual monument on the island marks one of the more brutal local episodes from the war: two US airmen, shot down by the Japanese navy, were tortured, beaten and beheaded. A third was used as bayonet practice with bamboo spears by a local mob.

Now the old order is inexorably shifting again as ageing, declining Japan struggles to accommodate the rising bulk of its giant neighbour. Four years ago, then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama floated an ultimately doomed vision of “fraternity” with China. That prospect has been drowned out by a series of disputes over these islands, climaxing with Tokyo’s decision last year effectively to nationalise the Senkakus. That provoked a furious response from Beijing, which said both governments had secretly agreed years ago to shelve the territorial issue. Tokyo denies any such deal. 

Earlier this month, an essay in the The People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, seemed to up the stakes in the dispute by attacking Japan’s historical right to rule the entire Okinawa chain. Some on Ishigaki, which has jurisdiction over the Senkakus, say they preferred the status quo to the uncertain new world ushered in by the nationalisation. For years, the local government refused to issue permits to Japanese ultra-nationalists who wanted to land on the island and plant flags. 

“The Chinese hardly made a fuss about the Senkakus until last year,” says Hiro Hotta, a doctor. “People around here have friendly feelings toward China, because of the long history and geographical closeness.  There is no animosity toward them at all, only in the heads of nationalists.”

But Ishigaki’s Mayor, Yoshitaka Nakayama, has signalled a different approach to his predecessors, who shied away from any nationalist posturing to avoid provoking either Beijing or Okinawa’s fierce pacifist movement.  The potent symbol of that difference is Japan’s rising sun flag, which flutters in from of Ishigaki city hall for the first time since the war. Mr Nakayama has asked Tokyo to build a Self-Defence Force base on the island. “We think the best deterrent is strength,” says Hidenobu Oe, a city hall spokesman.

Tokyo has so far declined to meet that demand, mindful of the likely response from Beijing, which will surely bristle at further militarisation of the area. A hawkish Tokyo clique, led by nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, says the door is open to negotiations but refuses to accept any territorial dispute over the Senkakus and demands that China first pull its boats out of the seas around the islands. Before his election last winter, Mr Abe invoked Margaret Thatcher’s retaking of the Falkland Islands in 1982 as an inspiration for defending the Senkakus.

Peace activists from Okinawa’s main island, which still bears the scars of the 1945 battle and reluctantly hosts most of Japan’s American military bases, say they will fight to prevent a base being built on Ishigaki. “It’s obvious that armies don’t bring peace,” says Dr Hotta. “We should try to build bridges with China rather than military walls.” 

In the Ishigaki branch office of the SDF, the commander speaks off the record about the future. Soon, he hopes, Tokyo will approve a military base and quick-response unit on Ishigaki, ready to fly to the Senkakus. People won’t say it, but they’re frightened of what will happen without more protection, he says. “The Chinese will never compromise; they’ll keep pushing the boundaries.”