Japan is fortifying its far-flung island chain in the East China Sea under an evolving strategy that aims to turn the tables on China’s navy and keep it from ever dominating the Western Pacific Ocean.
The United States, believing its Asian allies – and Japan in particular – must help contain growing Chinese military power, has pushed Japan to abandon its decades-old bare-bones home island defense in favor of exerting its military power in Asia.
Tokyo is responding by stringing a line of anti-ship, anti-aircraft missile batteries along 200 islands in the East China Sea stretching 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) from the country’s mainland towards Taiwan, Reuters reported.
Interviews with military planners and government policymakers reveal that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s broader goal to beef up the military has evolved to include a strategy to dominate the sea and air surrounding the remote islands.
While the installations are not secret, it is the first time such officials have spelled out that the deployment will help keep China at bay in the Western Pacific and amounts to a Japanese version of the “anti-access/area denial” doctrine, known as “A2/AD” in military jargon, that China is using to try to push the US and its allies out of the region.
Chinese ships sailing from their eastern seaboard must pass through this seamless barrier of Japanese missile batteries to reach the Western Pacific, access to which is vital to Beijing both as a supply line to the rest of the world’s oceans and for the projection of its naval power.
China’s President Xi Jinping has set great store in developing an ocean-going “blue water” navy capable of defending the country’s growing global interests.
To be sure, there is nothing to stop Chinese warships from sailing through under international law, but they will have to do so within the crosshairs of Japanese missiles, the officials told Reuters.
As Beijing asserts more control across the nearby South China Sea with almost completed island bases, the string of islands stretching through Japan’s East China Sea territory and south through the Philippines may come to define a boundary between US and Chinese spheres of influence.
Military planners dub this line the “first island chain”.
“In the next five or six years the first island chain will be crucial in the military balance between China and the US-Japan,” said Satoshi Morimoto, a Takushoku University professor who was defense minister in 2012 and advises the current defense chief, Gen Nakatani.
A US warship in late October challenged territorial limits that China is asserting around its new man-made island bases in the Spratly archipelago.
But Beijing may already have established “facts on the ground” in securing military control of the South China Sea, some officials and experts say.
“We may delay the inevitable, but that train left the station some time ago,” a senior US military source familiar with Asia told Reuters, on condition he was not identified because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Over the next five years, Japan will increase its Self-Defense Forces on islands in the East China Sea by about a fifth to almost 10,000 personnel.
Those troops, manning missile batteries and radar stations, will be backed up by marine units on the mainland, stealthy submarines, F-35 warplanes, amphibious fighting vehicles, aircraft carriers as big as World War Two flat-tops and ultimately the US Seventh Fleet headquartered at Yokosuka, south of Tokyo.
Already cooperating closely, the Japanese and US navies will draw closer than ever after Abe’s new security legislation legitimized collective self-defense, allowing Japan to come to the aid of allies under attack.
Bigger defense outlays are adding potency. Japan’s military is seeking spending in the next fiscal year’s budget that would top 5 trillion yen (US$40 billion) for the first time, including money for longer-range anti-ship missiles, sub-hunting aircraft, early-warning planes, Global Hawk drones, Osprey tiltrotor aircraft and a new heavy-lift, long-range transport jet.
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