The limits of Japan’s military strength

By Dr. Martin Wagener ,Special to The China Post

Japanese security policy has hit a dead end. Tokyo criticizes that since 2010, illegal incursions into the territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands (known as Diaoyu in China and Diaoyutai in Taiwan) by Chinese government ships have increased. Further, it deplores that Chinese fighter aircraft have entered airspace surrounding Japan without permission. While Tokyo insists that it is in the right legally, Beijing is continuously expanding its capability to project military power in the region. How or whether Japan can avert China’s extension of its sphere of influence in the East China Sea is unclear. The disputed islands are only 170 kilometers northeast of Taiwan. They are part of Japan’s sparsely populated south, the Ryukyu islands, a 1,200 kilometer-long island chain. Defending this area is difficult, especially because of logistical challenges. Moreover, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces’ (SDF) presence in the region has traditionally been small, mainly for historical reasons: During the Cold War, the SDF were more focused on the north, fearing a Soviet attack against Hokkaido. For many years, Tokyo has been aware of this situation. Then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi called for a ��defense force structure to respond effectively to the invasion of Japan’s offshore islands�� in the December 2004 National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG). Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, security challenges have been addressed more directly. The December 2013 NDPG openly threaten China: �� … should any remote islands be invaded, Japan will recapture them.�� To this end, the Western Army Infantry Regiment (WAIR) was set up in 2002. It is based in Sasebo (Nagasaki Prefecture) and is approximately 700 soldiers strong. It is modeled on the U.S. Marine Corps, trains for amphibious warfare, and would be the spearhead of a counterattack in a crisis. Until fiscal year 2018, it is planned to augment these forces by establishing the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (tentative name) which is expected to consist of about 3,000 soldiers.

In addition, about 20 F-15J fighters are based at Naha, the capital of Okinawa. They scramble, sometimes almost daily, against Chinese aircraft in the airspace above the East China Sea. Supposedly, 20 more F-15Js will be added by 2016. P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft of the Fleet Air Wing Five also carry out daily patrols in the disputed area.

Japan wants to improve the defensive capabilities of the armed forces stationed on the southwestern flank by the procuring of V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, Global Hawk drones and amphibious assault vehicles. Also, 150 soldiers of the Ground Self-Defense Forces (GSDF) will be deployed to the southernmost island of the Ryukyus, Yonaguni. By the end of fiscal year 2016, they are to operate a surveillance station there. Yonaguni is only 110 kilometers from Taiwan and 150 kilometers from the Diaoyutais. In perspective, Japan’s Ministry of Defense wants to station several hundred soldiers of the GSDF on Amami-Oshima, Miyako and Ishigaki islands. Under discussion is the deployment of surface-to-air and surface-to-ship missiles on at least one of these islands.