Japan may nationalise hundreds of unclaimed islands off its coast in a bid to bolster its territorial claims, reports said, in a move that could complicate already simmering relations with China over existing maritime disputes.
Quoting government sources, the Yomiuri newspaper reported yesterday that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government was planning to set up a multi-agency task force to identify around 400 islands that are not already explicitly identified as Japanese territory and confirm their ownership and the names of the islands.
If it was not possible to ascertain ownership, the island would be given an official name and nationalised, the paper said.
“This does not come as a surprise really and it’s something that the Japanese government had to do sooner or later,” Go Ito, a professor of international relations at Tokyo’s Meiji University, said.
“It’s also significant because they are acting now before China can start lodging claims to these islands. Of course, that means that we will again have conflicting claims over the sovereignty of some of these territories, just as we have over the Senkakus now.”
Ito was referring to the territorial row over the islands known as the Diaoyus in Chinese, which was reignited last September when Tokyo nationalised three islands in the chain in what it said was a mere administrative change of ownership.
As well as China, Japan is in dispute with Taiwan, South Korea and Russia over land that it considers to be its own territory.
“There is a relatively small number of islands that fall into the category of being potentially claimed by both sides, but it could still cause problems,” Ito said.
Chinese analysts have otherwise played down the potential impact on Sino-Japanese relations, which are already the lowest they have been in years.
“Tokyo is doing this out of fear as it has not sought sovereignty of these islands through a proper legal procedure,” said Lian Degui , deputy director of Japanese studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.
“The plan is unlikely to cast a significant impact on the relationship between China and Japan.” He said there was no indication the islands Tokyo wanted to nationalise were also claimed by China.
Another Japanese affairs expert, Da Zhigang of the Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences, said this could be an attempt by Abe to rally support for his Liberal Democratic Party ahead of Sunday’s upper house election. A victory would help end six years of parliamentary deadlock. “The Abe administration wants to divert voters’ attention from domestic issues to external affairs,” Da said.
With the geopolitical situation in East Asia changing dramatically and China increasingly looking to exert influence ever further from its shores, Tokyo hopes its new campaign, due to be completed next year, will erase any doubts over sovereignty.
As well as legal moves, the Japanese government is improving its military capabilities in areas that are considered at risk.
Tokyo is considering deploying a new unit to the Henoko district of Okinawa, where it will train and work closely with the US Marine Corps based at Camp Schwab.
The proposal to station an additional unit in Okinawa was first outlined in 2010, when the Mid-term Defence Plan stated the unit would be tasked with conducting rescue operations in the event of a natural disaster, protecting Japanese territory from external threats and hosting support units from other parts of Japan.
Three years later, Tokyo considers the threat posed by China to the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands to have reached a new high and is going ahead with the deployment.
In another development, a report on revising the National Defence Programme Guidelines is expected before the end of the month and will place renewed emphasis on amphibious and pre-emptive strike capabilities.
One of the key proposals will be the creation of a new branch of the military trained to perform the same tasks as the US Marine Corps. At present, Japan’s focus on defence has meant it refrained from developing military units trained to land on enemy-held terrain in advance of a main invasion force.