This writer for the Mainichi Daily News thinks that the passage of the Chinese flotilla off the coast of Okinawa was not aimed at the Japanese. Oh, it was “obviously” not. Rather, it was aimed at…the Americans!

The Miyako Channel will likely serve as the gate to the open ocean for ships of the Chinese Navy. The Chinese fleet wanted to show off its national flag obviously not to the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, but to U.S. forces in the Pacific Ocean.

Yes, the entire exercise was a demonstration of power against the United States. The flotilla took the shortest route to Guam. Sure, it passed through Japan’s EEZ, when it didn’t have to. Sure, it only stopped halfway to Guam, where it conducted exercises in the vicinity of Okinotorishima Island, commonly referred to as “Japan’s southernmost islands”. Sure it harassed Japanese ships with helicopters when they attempted to shadow the Chinese.

Can you not see how none of this had anything to do with Japan? This is not a matter Japan should concern itself with.

OK, enough. Let’s talk about what all of this is really about.

This article spells it all quite nicely. Okinotorishima is claimed as an island by Japan in order to extend Tokyo’s Exclusive Economic Zone in this part of the Pacific. And according to this article and this, Japan is starting to survey its EEZ (the sixth largest claimed EEZ in the world) for underwater resources. Rare minerals and methane hydrate in particular are mentioned. Japan, it should be noted, is notoriously poor in mineral and energy resources.

That southernmost circle? Okinotorishima. Click to enlarge. Photo: mapsof.net.

The two islands that make up Okinotorishima are, according to the article above, about the size of a small bedroom and a twin-sized (single, in Japan) bed. Looking at the map above, they’re farther from mainland Japan than the length of the Korean peninsula. They uninhabited, have no indigenous fresh water and are unable to independently support human life.

Based on these two tiny islands, Japan claims an extension of it’s Exclusive Economic Zone in two hundred miles in all directions. This is important enough that Japan has spent $600 million keeping the islands above water.

China, of course, does not like the sound of all this. Japan folding all of that water into it’s EEZ locks China out. In fact, Japan pretty much claims all of the water within hundreds of kilometers of North China as within its EEZ. You can forgive the Chinese for feeling a little hemmed in.

Now, back to the original article.

If you traced the fleet’s wake on Google Earth, you could easily understand the purpose of the exercise. Ningbo, the Miyako Channel and Okinotorishima Island are all along a straight line. If the line is extended, it reaches Guam, home to large U.S. bases. The fleet headed in the direction of Guam by the shortest possible course.

That’s one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is that 5/6th of this route travels through Japan’s EEZ, when the EEZ could have been avoided entirely.

But wait, there’s more!

In March, another Chinese Navy flotilla based in Qindao, Shandong province, passed through the Miyako Channel and advanced southward along the east coast of Taiwan. It then went into the South China Sea and came close to the Strait of Malacca.

Look at the map above. What do you see, just east of Taiwan? Why, another Japanese EEZ! This time it’s centered around the Senkaku Islands, known to the Chinese as the Diaoyutai Islands. The Chinese dispute Japanese ownership of the islands. Again, they could have avoided passing the Senkakus entirely. They didn’t.

The apparent intent of these exercises by China is to show military muscle in the disputed parts of Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zones. While this by no means indicates that China intends to seize the islands by force, it is an unsubtle reminder to Japan that China is evolving the capability to do so. When you include Taiwan and the fact that the Straits of Malacca are vitally important to virtually everyone east of them, China seems to be spelling out, in no uncertain terms, maritime economic and security issues that it deems important. These are not necessarily belligerent acts, but rather a signal to Japan that China is not going to let it slide on this issue.

The bright side is that if global sea levels rise as a byproduct of global warming, this whole issue could be moot, as the seas swallow places like Okinotorishima and leave sketchy territorial claims without a leg to stand on.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 596 post(s) on Japan Security Watch