The Self-Defense Forces have begun deploying missiles on islands marking the gateway to the Pacific as part of a huge military drill that has unsettled China.
The exercise, aimed at bolstering Japan’s defense of remote islands, has already seen a launching system and a loader for Type 88 surface-to-ship missiles set up on Miyako Island, Okinawa Prefecture, and two of the missiles. Four more missiles had arrived on Okinawa Island by Thursday.
It is not clear how long the missiles, which can’t be fired in their present state, will remain in place.
“This is the first time” that missile systems have been stationed on Miyako, said a spokesman for the joint staff of the SDF. “The drill is designed for the defense of (remote) islands.”
While the SDF makes no secret of the fact that the missiles are not operable, observers say their deployment serves as a message to regional neighbors, primarily China, that are monitoring Japan’s military capabilities.
The SDF began 18 days of war games Nov. 1 that involve 34,000 military personnel, six vessels and 360 aircraft. The exercise comes amid growing nervousness in Japan and other parts of Asia over China’s surging military might, which has seen an expansion of its naval reach into the Pacific as it squabbles with Tokyo over the ownership of the Senkakus in the East China Sea.
Beijing has separate sovereignty disputes with numerous other neighbors over territories in the South China Sea and claims most of the area.
At present, naval assets stationed in the north of China are somewhat hemmed in by the chain of Japanese islands that separate the East China Sea and the Pacific. The strait between Miyako and Okinawa islands offers one of the few direct access points to the ocean.
The SDF drill would bring that roughly 300-km stretch under the presumed range of the Type 88 missiles, domestic media reported. The government has said the drill is not aimed at any specific nation, but Japanese leaders have openly expressed disquiet as China escalates its territorial claims.
The SDF is also preparing to form a special amphibious unit, modeled after the U.S. Marine Corps, whose remit would be to defend small islands and recapture them in the event of enemy attacks.
China has routinely sent government vessels into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus, staging dangerous face-offs with Japan Coast Guard cutters. In the latest incident, four Chinese coast guard vessels Thursday intruded in Japan’s waters off the islets, which Beijing claims as the Diaoyu, and remained for around 90 minutes.
Relations between Asia’s two largest economies have frayed badly over the last year, with the Senkakus the focus of a dispute fanned by nationalism on both sides. For China, the row is also fueled by unresolved historical grievances, while Japan is on edge over what it sees as a sometimes hostile neighbor whose military is expanding alarmingly.
The ongoing SDF drill has irritated China, where local media said there was no doubt it was aimed to send a message to Beijing. The Global Times newspaper, which is close to the ruling Communist Party, reported on its front page Thursday that the decision to move the missiles to Miyako was “an unprecedented move that experts say is targeted at blocking the Chinese Navy.”
“The missile deployment is mainly set against China and it can pose real threats to the Chinese Navy,” Li Jie, an expert on China’s naval forces, told the paper.
China’s military, through state media, also accused Japan of interfering in Chinese live-fire drills in the Pacific last month, an allegation that Tokyo denied.