Japan Self-Defense Force troops land on Eniyabanare Island during a military drill. (Reuters/Kyodo)
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.
Interviews with a dozen 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 United States 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
both as a supply line to the rest of
the world's oceans and for the projection of its naval power. Beijing
To be sure, there is nothing to stop Chinese warships from sailing through under international law, but they will have to do so in within the crosshairs of Japanese missiles, the officials told Reuters.
First island chain
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 may come to define a
boundary between US and Chinese spheres of influence. Military planners dub
this the line the "first island chain". Philippines
"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.
warship in late October challenged territorial limits that is
asserting around its new man-made island bases in the Spratly archipelago. China
Beijing may already have
established "facts on the ground" in securing military control of the
South China Sea, some officials and experts
"We may delay the inevitable, but that train left the station some time ago," a senior
military source familiar with Asia told
Reuters, on condition he was not identified because he was not authorized to
talk to the media.
China's "ultimate objective is hegemony over the South China Sea, hegemony over the East China Sea", said Kevin Maher, who headed the US State Department's Office of Japan Affairs for two years until 2011. "To try and appease the Chinese would just encourage the Chinese to be more provocative," said Maher, now a consultant at NMV Consulting in
Turning the tables
The predecessor Democratic Party of Japan government pivoted away from protecting the northern
Soviet invasion that never came to defending the southwest island chain. island
"The growing influence of
and the relative decline of the
was a factor," said Akihisa Nagashima, a DPJ lawmaker who as vice minister
of defense helped craft that change. "We wanted to do what we could and
help ensure the sustainability of the US forward deployment." US
It joins an arsenal the US Congress estimates at 1,200 short-range missiles and intermediate missiles that can strike anywhere along the first island chain.
is also developing submarine- and land-launched radar-evading cruise missiles. China
"Rather than A2/AD, we use the phrase 'maritime supremacy and air superiority'," said Yosuke Isozaki, Abe's first security adviser until September and a key author of a national defense strategy published in 2013 that included this phrase for the first time.
"Our thinking was that we wanted to be able to ensure maritime supremacy and air superiority that fit with the
military," he added. US
Toshi Yoshihara, a US Naval War College professor, said
Tokyo could play an important role in limiting China's room for maneuver through the East China
Sea to the Western Pacific, enhancing US
freedom of movement and buying time for the alliance to respond in the event of
war with . China
"You could say
is turning the tables on ,"
Yoshihara said. China
Memories of Japanese aggression in World War Two still haunt
Tokyo's relations with its near neighbors, and
tensions have sharpened since the return to power of Abe, who critics view as a
revisionist who wants to downplay 's wartime past. Japan
“Any Japanese military trend will elicit close attention and misgivings from Asian neighboring countries,"
National Defense Ministry told Reuters by email in reply to questions about 's island
"We urge the Japanese side to take history as a mirror, and take more actions in the interests of growing mutual trust."
Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, commander of the US Seventh Fleet, cast
in the East China Sea as complementary to a broader strategy. US
planning process for any theater takes into consideration the capabilities and
forces of friends and potential adversaries," Aucoin told Reuters.
"The U.S plans with the ultimate objective of maintaining peace and
stability not only for US ,
but also for the region." Japan
Missile batteries, radar stations
Over the next five years,
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
to come to the aid of allies
under attack. Japan
One crucial change, said Maher: the US and Japanese military can now plan and practice for war together and deliver a "force multiplier."
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 ($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.
In some areas, however,
's military is making do.
Anti-ship missiles designed 30 years ago to destroy Soviet landing craft
heading for Hokkaido are being deployed to draw the defensive curtain along the
southwest island chain. Japan
Able to lob a 225-kg (500-lb) warhead 180 km, they have enough range to cover the gaps between the islands along the chain, said Noboru Yamaguchi, a Sasakawa Peace Foundation adviser and former general who procured them three decades ago.
Japan's military planners must also figure out how to transform an army used to sticking close to its bases into a more mobile, expeditionary force.
Decades of under-investment in logistics means Japan has too few naval transport ships and military aircraft to carry large numbers of troops and equipment.
A more delicate task for Japan's government, however, may be persuading people living along the islands to accept a bigger military footprint. After decades hosting the biggest concentration of US troops in Asia, people on Okinawa are voicing greater opposition to the bases.
For now, communities on the long chain of islands, home to 1.5 million people, that have been asked to host Japanese troops are happy to do so, said Ryota Takeda, a lawmaker who as vice defense minister until Sept. 2014 traveled there frequently to win residents' approval for new deployments.
"Unlike officials sitting in the Ministry of Defense in Tokyo they are more attuned to the threat they face every day."