Japan sets up Military Base in Ishigaki Island to Deter China
Prof Rajaram Panda

Like many Asian nations, Japan that shares a historically ugly phase of relationship with China, now faces the heat from a muscular China, despite having a robust relationship in the economic domain. China’s ambitions to attain a great power status seem to be unstoppable. Except probably the United States that can match singularly to China’s threat, none of the rest of countries in the world has the commensurate military strength to deal with China’s assertiveness singularly. Such a scenario has led to the emergence of a plethora of institutional architecture such as the Quad and AUKUS in the security aspect and the Indo Pacific Economic Forum (IPEF) and Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreements (CEPA) in the economic domain. Beijing’s BRI project is also fraught with problems as there is no transparency and creates scope for small nations that join to fall into debt trap.

While such measures are laudable, individual nations are also doing their bit to defend their countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity if they come under attack or threat of attack from any foreign power. This essay deals with the case of Japan that continues to face twin threats from North Korea and China. While North Korea’s missile and nuclear development programmes have unsettled the rest of the world, including Japan as Pyongyang’s missile firings have flown over Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido and air space, China’s claims on Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands puts Japan on the edge. For now, the Korean challenge has been kept out of discussion in this write-up and shall be discussed separately.

Such a situation demands that Japan remain prepared to face the challenge when that occurs as the protection of US nuclear umbrella under the security alliance relationship may not be adequate at the time of need. The problem with Japan is that its Constitution is pacifist and Article 9 debars Japan to possess, manufacture or export weapons. Amending this peace clause is difficult as the process is cumbersome. Public opinion also remains often divided. Aware of the difficulties, the former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo reinterpreted the clause, thereby diluting the spirit of the pacifist clause to some extent. As it transpired that was not enough. The present Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has also followed on the path carved out by Abe. The journey is arduous, however.

There was a self-imposed cap of keeping the country’s defence spending below 1 per cent of the country’s GDP. The changed situation makes compelling reason for the Kishida administration to revisit and breach this cap. As a result, a decision has been taken to hike the defence spending incrementally to the tune of 2 per cent of the GDP. That still would take time. Japan approved in December 2022 a record defence budget of about $51.4 billion for fiscal 2023, emphasising counter-strike capabilities and strengthening standoff air and missile defence. Other measures of preparedness are also on the way.

Though mainland Japan consists of four primary islands - Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku, the country has a total of 6,852 islands. Many are very small and uninhabited. Some are strategically located and thus very important for the defence of Japan as Japan can deploy its forces to secure the country’s defence from external threat. Ishigaki Island is one such strategically important island. Ishigaki is roughly 2,000km from Tokyo but less than 300km from Taiwan and is of critical importance. On 2 March 2023, Japan officially announced the launch of a base on the island as part of a new fortified front line that Japanese government decided to establish on the East China Sea.

This military base on Ishigaki in Japan’s southern island chain will be home to about 600 Ground Self-Defense Force (SDF) drawn from surface-to-air and surface-to-ship guided- missile units, an underground rifle range, stockpiles of ammunition and anti-air and anti-ship missiles. After an opening ceremony on 2 April, Camp Ishigaki will begin operations.[1] With this new base, the gap of the SDFs in the Nansei region is considerably addressed. The Nansei Islands stretch from Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands, to within 70 miles of Taiwan. Ishigaki is about 150 miles east of Taiwan. Japan expects the new facility will enhance Japan’s deterrence power in the southern island chain, thereby securing the country’s security.

Construction began in 2019, with essential facilities that included three main buildings, a shooting range, two vehicle maintenance hangars, four ammunition depots, a warehouse, a training facility and other buildings. The missile units will be moved south from GSDF camps in Nagasaki and Kumamoto prefectures.

The decision to have another military base in Ishigaka was to check Chinese military’s increasing presence in the seas east of the island chain and around Taiwan with naval drills, over-flights and transits of key, narrows straits that give way to the Pacific Ocean. The earlier military base in Nansei was also driven with the same objective. Japan is also developing an upgraded version of the high-speed, truck-mounted Type-12 missile with its range extended from 62 miles to 620 miles. That would put potential targets around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and parts of China and North Korea within reach. Critics within Japan, however, say that positioning these assets in the Nansei may violate Japan’s pacifist constitution.

The Senkaku island group in the East China Sea is controlled by Japan but claimed by Beijing. Chinese coast guard vessels have repeatedly entered Japanese waters around the uninhabited islets. Japan is also aware that Taiwan, a self-ruled democratic island nation, which China claims as a breakaway province and therefore needed to be reunified with the mainland, by force if necessary. Since China is troubling Taiwan by repeatedly violating its air space and intrusion into its territorial waters, Japan too is alarmed as an increased Chinese military activity in the Taiwan Strait would also impact its own security in the Senkaku. It is therefore enhancing its deterrence and response capabilities against China by building defence footholds on the Nansei Islands. The GSDF sets up garrisons on Yonaguni Island in Okinawa in 2016, and on the prefecture’s Miyako Island and Amami Island in Kagoshima prefecture in 2019 with missile units were with similar purpose.[2] Construction of a new base on Mageshima, closer to mainland Japan, has also just begun. All these moves by Japan are meeting the guidelines of the National Security Strategy, announced in December 2022.

Local Opposition

Though the Japanese government’s decision was in response to the severe security situation confronting Japan stemming from China’s muscle-flexing, some small group of locals of Ishigaki Island opposed setting up the military base and demanded that it be removed. It may be recalled that in the final phase of World War II in 1945, Okinawa became the site of the conflict’s bloodiest ground battle on Japanese soil with more than 200,000 civilians and soldiers from the Japanese and American militaries killed. They are still haunted by the War and surviving but feel that history is repeating itself and the spectre of war is returning to Ishigaki.[3]

While some locals view the base as necessary to counter a powerful and threatening China, others fear it is an act of provocation that could once again see Ishigaki trapped between two warring powers. There is considerable unease among some locals that as talk of conflict between the US and China over Taiwan intensifies and Japan, as an ally of the US, gets ready by embarking on its biggest military expansion since World Wars II, the country’s deep-rooted culture of pacifism shall be instantly challenged. The memories of the extreme brutalities endured in the final chapters of the war shall return.

Japan chose the far-flung tourist island to host a state-of-the-art military base is because Ishigaki fitted well into Japan’s bigger strategic picture. With a vital US military base already in place in Okinawa Main Island, together these islands now form a wall that Japan could use to contain China in the East China Sea. The dotted islands are kind of like fences. It would prevent the Chinese to get out as the Japanese military shall be in a position to block the Chinese. Therefore, Japanese military assets there shall act as deterrence.

Is it the Sign of the Death of Pacifism in Japan?

This question is being debated for quite some time in Japan. There can never be finality on the debate whether Japan stands by its pacifist policy enshrined in Article 9 of the Constitution or should deviate from its spirit in view of the changed situation at present? It is all well known that the US which was restoring post-War order and helping Japan to move towards a democratic structure during the Occupation period was compelled to create the Self Defence Force. There were some caveats incorporated in the Constitution limiting the role of Japan in its own security. Further, the US forces then stationed in Japan had to be deployed to Korea when the Korean War broke out. The role of the SDF was limited strictly to defensive footing, intending only to stop an invading army, with annual spending capped at about 1 per cent of the GDP. This is now being revisited.

The situation in the region has changed dramatically now because of China’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the region with huge spending on its defence budgets. Besides threatening Taiwan which it considers as a renegade province and keeps the option to annex by the use of force if necessary, Chinese coast guard vessels have often intruded into waters around Senkaku Islands and clashed with Japanese vessels. Chinese incursions into the waters around the Senkaku Islands suddenly increased in 2012 when China acquired military muscle and started bullying weaker countries.

This prompted then Shinzo Abe administration to adopt drastic measures so that Japan’s security is strengthened. This included measures to increase coastal defence, create awareness among people on Japan’s vulnerabilities, and reinterpret the Constitution that allowed the SDFs to defend its allies, the US, bringing the two countries’ militaries even closer together. Other measures included the development of the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade to defend its many remote islands from an invading force. The Kishida administration has pledged to boost the country’s military budget by almost over 60 per cent over five years. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, this would catapult Japan from the world’s ninth largest defence spender to the third. Japan is aware that if a conflict breaks out in the Taiwan Strait, it would inevitably be drawn into it. Therefore adequate defence preparedness has emerged as a priority.

Because of this prevailing situation and despite protests from a small group of members, there seems to be overall consensus as demonstrated by polls in Ishigaki supporting the new military base. Some others feel that if the SDFs are not there in Ishigaki, China would be emboldened to attack. If this is the situation, the issue of national defence by referendum on the issue of a military base in Ishigaki becomes questionable. This shows that the issue is complicated. Though there would be differing views on the base issue, the national security issue needs to get primacy of consideration. Japan’s decision to have a military base in Ishigaki seems justified.

Endnotes :

[1]Matthew M. Burke and Keishi Koja, “Japanese missile base to open for business this week on island near Taiwan”, 14 March 2023, https://www.stripes.com/theaters/asia_pacific/2023-03-14/japan-new-missile-base-taiwan-9488188.html
[2] “Japan sends missile units to southwestern island to face China threat”, 16 March 2023, https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2023/03/438da74ba751-japan-sends-missile-units-to-southwestern-island-to-face-china-threat.html
[3] James Oaten, Lisa McGregor and Yumi Asada, ‘There’s is no end of war for us’, 16 February 2023, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-02-16/jacoast guar vessels pan-ishigaki-military-base-remilitarisation-counter-china/101869542#:~:text=Ishigaki%C2%A0is%20roughly%202%2C000km%20from%20Tokyo%C2%

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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