Around a million Chinese tourists visit Japan annually and most are unaware that the Japanese Self Defence Force is practicing for a war with their country.
Chinese people receive a warm welcome and enjoy their holidays. They spend generously and their tourism helps build good international relationships and a thriving trade for Japan’s hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.
Southern war games
However, on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, Japan is training its forces to respond to China’s growing military power. Around 1,500 members of the newly formed Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade – Japan’s version of the American marines – recently took part in an exercise in which they pretended to recapture land from invaders; that meant practicing for a war with China.
The drill was to prepare for a situation in which one of Japan’s uninhabited islands in the Senkaku chain is captured by China in a territorial dispute. China calls the islands in the South China Sea the Diaoyu islands – and claims them as its own.
Chinese military activities around the islands have soared in recent years in terms of the volume and frequency of both military aircraft and naval vessels, a development that has alerted not only Japan but also Taiwan, which is situated even closer to the Senkaku Islands than Japan.
Meeting Colonel Zhou Bo
This week, I discussed the islands with a Chinese senior colonel, Zhou Bo. He began by stating that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army plans to become a first class military force by the middle of the 21st Century.
Colonel Zhou Bo said: “The Japanese have complained that the frequent exercises by the Chinese PLA in the South China Sea have made them very much exhausted. That is because we have more ships and more aircraft than the Japanese. If the Japanese scramble their aircraft whenever we move beyond the first chain of islands, they will become exhausted. But I say, why should Japan become exhausted? The Chinese ships and aircraft are moving within the Miyako Strait, in line with international law.”
“China is operating in line with international law”
Senior Colonel Zhou Bo
A different kind of army
This contentious border issue has been a diplomatic problem between Japan and China for decades. Japan regards China as a persistent threat in the region and this is part of the reason that prime minister Shinzo Abe hopes to hold a referendum which could transform the Self Defence Force into a full army, authorised to fight abroad in support of its allies. In order to make that change, he would need support in a referendum to revise the constitution – a step he may well take following the 2020 Olympic Games.
Before then, there is a chance to calm things down during friendly talks with China. This week, Wang Yi has become the first Chinese foreign minister to visit Tokyo in more than eight years. He will attend the Japan-China High-Level Economic Dialogue, alongside Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Kono.
Then early next month, the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is expected to attend a trilateral summit in Tokyo with Shinzo Abe and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-In and there are provisional plans for Mr Abe to visit China in the autumn.
No doubt Japan will extend gracious hospitality to its Chinese guests. One hopes this creates the goodwill to ensure constructive talks, aimed at resolving the dangerous disagreement that festers in Japan’s deep south.