Japan deploys forces to defend territorial waters near disputed islands

Japan deploys forces to defend territorial waters near disputed islands

Felix Kim

Facing persistent maritime intrusions into its territorial waters, Japan is deploying military units to three islands in the country’s southwest to counter actions by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) .

The Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) recently deployed troops to the inhabited islands of Amami Oshima, Miyako and Ishigaki, which are close to the Senkaku Islands, a small chain of uninhabited islands claimed by Japan and China.

On at least four occasions in 2019, Chinese government vessels sailed into Japanese waters around the Senkakus, according to Japan’s government.

“In consideration of the severe security environment surrounding Japan, it has been an urgent challenge to fill the void in terms of the deployment of the GSDF in the southwestern region at an early time and strengthen the defense system,” Minister of Defense Takeshi Iwaya told reporters on April 7, 2019.

Iwaya described the region 12 days earlier as “the front line in the defense of Japan” when he announced the deployment, adding that the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands, pictured, were only lightly guarded by the military on Yonaguni, Japan’s westernmost island.

Yonaguni is about 150 kilometers south of the Senkakus and is home to a Japanese radar base protected by 160 military personnel.

“So, we aim to build up a solid defense and deterrence capability here,” he said. “We decided to set up units at Miyakojima [city on Myako Island] and Amami Oshima this time. We are also moving ahead on preparations to set up units at Ishigaki Island. The ability to deploy personnel through these efforts not only serves to cover the undefended areas in the southwestern regions but also enables us to deal with situations quickly such as during a disaster. Hence, it is a very meaningful deployment.”

The military deployed 380 ground troops to Miyako Island in March 2019, The Japan Timesnewspaper reported. About 300 to 400 more Soldiers who operate surface-to-air and surface-to-ship missiles are expected in April 2019 or shortly thereafter. Some 560 troops will be stationed sometime later on Amami Oshima Island.

“As a result of the deployment of the Miyako Security Force at this time,” Iwaya said, “the capabilities to take initial actions, deploy units rapidly and make responses in the event of various situations, including disasters, have improved, partially filling the void in terms of the deployment of the Ground SDF in the southwestern region.”

“Japan is trying to demonstrate the capability and will to defend the Senkaku Islands from encroachment,” James L. Schoff, senior Asia fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told FORUM, “and by doing so deter any aggressive action there by China.”

In mid-February 2019, Japan’s Coast Guard spotted four Chinese government vessels maneuvering for about two hours around the Senkakus in Japanese waters, according to The Japan Times. The PRC orchestrated three similar intrusions in January 2019, the newspaper added.

Tokyo is also concerned with the frequent passage of ships and aircraft belonging to China’s People’s Liberation Army through the straits of Tokara and Miyako, which run between Japan’s southwest islands, Schoff said. Neither strait is recognized by Tokyo as a passage for international traffic.

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.