Page 1 of 2 Japanese forces gird for mock island assault
By Peter J Brown
The Nansei Islands or Nansei-shoto, meaning "southwest group" - also known as
the Ryukyu Islands - consist of the islands extending from the Japanese island
of Kyushu to Taiwan, a distance of over 650 miles (1,040 kilometers). Among
other things, these islands form the eastern boundary of the East China Sea.
In December, the Nansei Islands will be swarming with Japanese and United
States naval vessels. Numerous helicopters and fighter aircraft will dot the
sky as well. This will take place as part of a joint US Navy-Japanese Ground,
Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces (G/M/A/SDF) exercise aimed at simulating
will take place in the event that a hostile nation attempts to seize one of
Japan's many remote islands.
"This exercise did not come out of the blue. The shift to territorial defense
in the Nansei Islands, or southwest Japan in general, began in early 2000s when
there was a significant shift of forces to SDF bases in Okinawa," said
Associate Professor Kazuto Suzuki of Hokkaido University's Public Policy
School. "So, this exercise seems to be an extension, or next stage of the
The initial response from Chinese experts to news of the exercise has been
subdued and unemotional.
Shen Shishun at the China Institute of International Studies, for example,
needed more information before branding the exercise as being aimed at China.
"Both China and the ROK [Republic of Korea] have territorial disputes with
Japan in that region," Shen said. "We should not read too much into it so as to
In the case of the ROK, Shen was probably referring to the dispute over
Takeshima, a group of uninhabited islands in the Sea of Japan (known in Korea
as the East Sea). Strangely, he omitted any mention of Taiwan.
Li Daguang at the University of National Defense described the drill as
It could be that China has been too preoccupied with the US Navy's exercises
with the South Korean Navy in the Yellow Sea, or perhaps it has elected to wait
a bit longer before criticizing the drill. More likely, China has remained
quiet because Taiwan is already starting to erupt over the news. In contrast,
criticism in Taiwan of the Japanese for planning this series of provocative
maneuvers in hotly contested territory was not restrained.
The China Post, for example, declared on its editorial page that the Japanese
remote island drill "over waters near the Tiaoyutai [Diaoyutai] Islands" really
makes no sense whatsoever because "the scenario is naive, if not inane". China
and Taiwan both claim these islands as their own. 
The China Post said that, "It is almost inconceivable that Japan's Self-Defense
forces, which have inherited the venerable historic tradition of its once
invincible Imperial Army and Navy, are planning to stage a joint air-sea
maneuver with the US based on a highly unlikely war scenario."
The China Post pinpointed the site of the drill as "the largest of the eight
uninhabited islets the Japanese call the Senkaku archipelago" approximately 120
miles (193 kilometers) northeast of Keelung. It then described Taiwan as ready
and willing to engage PLA forces by stating that, "Taiwan's defense forces
certainly cannot match the PLA in all-out hostilities, but are more than strong
enough to hold their ground in denying safe-passage for easy access to
After pointing out that, "there is no ground whatsoever for fears that Senkaku
may be invaded and occupied", the China Post concluded that the "end result of
the reportedly oncoming joint exercise will be to increase tensions between
Japan and the People's Republic Of China. That's the worst scenario none of the
countries involved hope to unfold."
When the Yomiuri Shimbun broke the news of this pending exercise, "based on the
newly compiled defense program for the Nansei Islands, which includes the
Okinawa Islands", it did stress that the Japanese government had not conducted
these remote island exercises in the past "due mainly to political
considerations involving neighboring countries".
In contrast, very little was said a few months ago, for example, when at about
the same time that a small flotilla of People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)
vessels appeared in the area, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa announced that
his government would examine the feasibility of deploying an GSDF contingent
fulltime on Yonagunijima Island. 
News of the Tiaoyutai Islands seldom surfaces in the West, and yet in 2008,
Taiwan reclaimed them with much fanfare for the first time in more than a
decade in a rapid response to a violent collision between a Japanese MSDF ship
and a Taiwanese sport fishing boat.
"We have never changed our determination to insist on protecting our
sovereignty over the Tiaoyutais," the Office of the President said. "Nor will
we change." 
This adds another layer of complexity to China's activities at sea which have
recently included a steady uptick in the passage of PLAN ships through these
same waters and have contributed to Japan's sense that such training and
preparation is certainly justified.
According to Tetsuo Kotani, a research fellow at the Ocean Policy Research
Foundation in Tokyo, Japan's updated National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG)
reflect a need for an increased presence on its remote islands.
"The 2004 NDPG first referred to the importance of remote island defense as a
joint operation. The new NDPG expected by the end of this year will put more
emphasis on remote island defense by calling for deploying many ground troops
on those islands," said Kotani. "This exercise is necessary to maintain a
regional military balance that has been challenged by China's rapid military
buildup, especially anti-access/area denial capabilities."
Flexibility and mobility are seen as two of the major objectives of the new
NDPG. Among other things, it is spurring further discussion about a proposed
Japanese Marine Corps which would be ideally suited for the exercise in
Based on the steady progress on a new class of MSDF helicopter-carrying
warships, this plan appears already well underway. The helicopter carriers now
in service and the proposed next-generation of helicopter carriers are designed
in part for long-endurance operations.
"The great thing about this plan is that Japan has already done all the hard
work. It has already built or is in the process of building the larger ships.
It already has the helicopters and experience operating them at sea," said Kyle
Mizokami, editor of Japan Security Watch. "It has already spent the big money.
Now, all it needs are the smaller, inexpensive ships. The result would be a
powerful, flexible amphibious lift capability." 
Together, the exercise and the NDPG will make China think twice about how far
it can proceed, but the Japanese cannot say for sure that, in the end, this
will effectively deter China.
"It will send a message to China that Japan is not happy with the recent
Chinese naval actions," said Yukie Yoshikawa, a senior research fellow at Johns
Hopkins University's Edwin O Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies in
China has been demonstrating that it intends to exert control over its
so-called "First Island Chain", which extends from Kyushu in Japan, along the
Nansei Islands down to the zone east of Taiwan and covering the entire South