Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships in Okinawa. The force is in charge of security in the Ryukyu and Senkaku islands which are claimed by China. Photo: iStock

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As tensions slowly rise over a strategic island chain in the East China Sea claimed by China but mostly occupied by Japan, a report from a prominent think-tank on a defensive strategy has been noticed at high levels. 

The top echelons of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have taken notice of a Hudson Institute report called “US-Japan Cooperation on Strategic Island Defense.” 

Meetings are planned this week to review the report’s proposals and recommendations for better tactical and operational coordination on defending Japan’s strategic islands.

The Report focuses mainly on the strategic island chain in the East China Sea and proposes how Japan and the United States can cooperate in beefing up island defenses and improving tactical coordination that could include unspecified neighbors – most importantly, Taiwan.  

The United States has two major bases on Okinawa, which is the largest island in the Ryukyu chain. These are the US Air Force base at Kadenia, now equipped with F-35 stealth jet fighters and long-range F-15s, and the Marine base at Futenma.

Leading think-tank

The report was prepared by Tokyo-based Junjiro Isomura, Washington-based naval expert Seth Cropsey and retired US Marine General James Conway. Isomura is a fellow at the Hudson Institute and an important adviser to Shinzō Abe. During Abe’s father’s stint as foreign minister, Isomura helped Japan develop better relations with the Soviet Union, setting up a critical dialog with Mikhail Gorbachev. 

In the intervening years, he has worked with the leaders of Japan’s MITI and other ministries, including defense, and has supported better US-Japan strategic ties. 

Seth Cropsey served as Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and Bush administrations, where he was responsible for the navy’s position on efforts to reorganize the Department of Defense; development of America’s maritime strategy; the navy’s academic institutions; naval special operations; and burden-sharing with NATO allies.

In the Bush administration, Cropsey moved to the Office of the Secretary of Defense to become Acting Assistant Secretary, and then principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. 

General James Conway previously served as the 34th Commandant of the US Marine Corps. In 2003 he initially led the invasion of Iraq, commanding  90,000 US and British troops.  

The Hudson Institute is a leading Washington think-tank originally founded by the late Herman Kahn, described as one of the “preeminent futurists of the latter part of the twentieth century.”

The Ryukyu and Senkaku islands form a chain of islands and a sea and air barrier to China’s ability to reach the Pacific from the East China Sea. Sovereignty over all these islands, including Okinawa, the largest, is disputed by China and, secondarily by Taiwan, acting as the Republic of China on Taiwan. 

Yonaguni, population 1,684, is the western-most of the islands, lying 108 kilometers or 67 miles from the east coast of Taiwan. Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited the Okinawa Prefecture island of Yonaguni for the first time on March 28 this year, an unusual visit designed to show solidarity with Taiwan.  

On Yonaguni, Japan installed a coastal monitoring-early warning station with radar and other sensors. A joint “mobile aircraft control and warning squadron” is also commissioned for Yonaguni and Type 12 anti-ship missiles are now operational.

China reacted harshly to the deployment on Yonaguni, saying that “The[se] islands are China’s inherent territory. We are resolutely opposed to any provocative behavior by Japan aimed at Chinese territory.” China added: “The activities of Chinese ships and aircraft in the relevant waters and airspace are completely appropriate and legal” and accused Japan of expansionism.

Japan has already started constructing military bases and installing equipment to blunt any Chinese attempt to grab any of the islands, as they did in the South China Sea. On nearby Ishigaki island, population 48,000, Japan plans to deploy a garrison of its self-defense forces and already has in place batteries of land-to-ship Type 12 missiles. 

In addition, Japan is improving Ishigaki’s port to accommodate five large Coast Guard cutters that will be used to mount patrols in the area.

The crucial area is the Miyako Strait, which is the main gateway from China and the East China Sea to the Pacific. Japan is working to shut the door on the strait so that in times of conflict China will not have an easy exit. 

It is reinforcing Miyako island – Miyako-jima, population 55,914 – located about 290 km or 180 miles southwest of the main island of Okinawa, where Japan has installed Type 12 surface to ship missiles as part of an anti-access area denial (A2/AD) strategy, which Japanese defense planners prefer to describe as a maritime supremacy, air superiority strategy.  

There are many political hurdles facing Japan as it attempts to implement its strategy and hold off pressure from China. One factor, already noted, is that China – at least since 2012 – has stepped up its claims of sovereignty over all these islands. 

Despite Japan’s legal arguments that are largely based on the San Francisco Peace Treaty (1951), the Chinese case has some legal and historical merit, but after China denounced the Hague Tribunal arbitration decision and began militarizing islands in the South China Sea, denying much stronger legal claims, especially from the Philippine’s, today China can’t fall back on legal arguments regarding Japan’s sovereignty claims. 

This blunder by China damages its ability to work out any compromise solution, since it rejected any reasonable outcome in the Hague arbitration.

Instead, China has been stepping up agitation and pushing its claims locally, particularly in Okinawa where opposition to American bases, especially the US Marine base at Futenma where a deal to relocate the base away from heavily populated areas has so far failed to reach local consensus.

Meanwhile, China has even boosted an American film that backs China’s claims to the Senkaku islands called “The Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands: The Truth.”

But beyond the political issues are operational and financial questions that still hang over Japan’s efforts. As the Hudson Report emphasizes, there are still serious internal military coordination issues, especially between the Japanese Air Force and its land forces. 

On top of that, Japan’s military hardware and lack of transport capability will make it hard to reinforce the islands in any real conflict scenario. Likewise, Japan still continues with a very small defense budget and despite modest improvements, it will be a long time before Japan catches up to where it should be to defend itself.

This means that Japan will need to depend on the United States and, to do so, the Hudson Report strongly emphasizes the need to develop real operational coordination capabilities with US commanders in the field.

Today there is high-level policy coordination, but not the tactical capability one sees featured elsewhere, as in the NATO alliance. It is likely the Pentagon will take a keen interest in the Hudson recommendation on coordination and perhaps Japan too will see the merit in taking the next appropriate step in rebuilding Japan’s security posture.

Meanwhile, neither the US nor Japan can continue to ignore Taiwan. While Taiwan also must depend on the United States, it has significant military power and excellent location to help bottle up China if it becomes aggressive. Working out some practical means to align Taiwan’s forces with the US and Japan is essential.

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