One thousand members of the Self-Defense Forces have been learning how to recapture territory in the face of enemy fire, and while the shoreline may be California’s, the skills they are building could one day be used closer to home.

During the two-week Dawn Blitz joint drills in June, a Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel launched a hovercraft that carried personnel and heavy weaponry onto a beach — an operation observed by American and Japanese officers — and elite rangers practiced a nighttime beach infiltration.

The exercises reflect the Liberal Democratic Party’s interest in developing a force similar to the U.S. Marine Corps to counter what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says are China’s attempts to forcibly alter the status quo in maritime disputes in the volatile East and South China seas. With the LDP poised to sweep the July 21 Upper House election, Abe, 58, will have a majority in both Diet chambers to push through legislation.

“There’s a fear of China in Japan that didn’t used to be there,” said Aaron Friedberg, a professor of international relations at Princeton University who advised former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney on national security. “They (Japan’s leaders) know what kind of military capabilities the Chinese are developing and the threat that it poses.”

The LDP, which, according to a July 4-5 poll by the Yomiuri Shimbun, is expected to win a comfortable majority in this Sunday’s election together with coalition ally New Komeito, presented its defense proposals May 30.

Building on this year’s first rise in the defense budget in 11 years, the LDP wants to purchase first-strike weapons, including cruise missiles, and to reinterpret the Occupation-era Constitution so Japan can exercise the right to collective self-defense and assist allies under armed attack.

Abe would still be up against what polls show is widespread unease over expanding military capabilities Japan hasn’t had since the end of World War II, as well as fiscal constraints imposed by the world’s largest mountain of public debt.

Any shift in focus away from the economy also risks unsettling investors after a surge of about 41 percent in the Nikkei 225 stock average on optimism for Abe’s plans to end two decades of malaise.

New Komeito’s reluctance to embrace a tougher defense stance further raises the odds of the LDP’s proposals becoming diluted in a final plan due by December.

Yet LDP hawks are undeterred, pointing out that China’s military spending will overwhelm Japan’s by around ¥12 trillion to ¥4.6 trillion this year. China is the world’s second-biggest defense spender after the U.S.

A potential nucleus for a Japanese marine force exists in the form of the Ground Self-Defense Force Western Army Infantry Regiment, which was founded in 2002 with 660 troops to deal with emergencies on the islets that dot the ocean between Japan’s main islands and Taiwan and are claimed by rival parties, according to that year’s defense white paper.

China has raised its amphibious capabilities, a report by the U.S. Defense Department said in May, with three brigades and two divisions deployed near the Taiwan Strait, while the Chinese navy has 55 large and medium-size amphibious transport and landing ships.

One of these marine brigades has some 5,000 troops, retired South Korean Army Col. Lee Jae-hyung wrote in “China and the Asia-Pacific Region: Geostrategic Relations and a Naval Dimension,” published in 2003.

“China is steadily strengthening its military, so the capability of the Japanese and U.S. militaries must be boosted to counter that,” said Takeshi Iwaya, who heads the LDP defense committee that put together the party’s proposals.

Otherwise, the alliance could “buckle” under China’s might, he warned in an interview last month.

Japan’s reassessment of its military capability falls within the broader sweep of China’s increasing military, strategic and economic presence in Asia. In a defense white paper issued July 9, Tokyo accused Beijing of trying to change by force the regional status quo.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing last week that the report “maliciously hypes the so-called China threat in disregard of the basic facts.”

“The normal and legitimate development of China’s national defense capability will pose no threat to any country,” Hua said.

Chinese and SDF ships and aircraft have been tailing one another around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, administered by Japan but claimed as Diaoyu by China and as Tiaoyutai by Taiwan, since Tokyo bought three of the main islets last September, effectively nationalizing the uninhabited chain Japan first took possession of in 1895.

“Japan is improving its ability to deal with situations where China does not act in line with international law,” said Tetsuo Kotani, a research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, referring to the incursions by Chinese vessels into Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkakus. “Working with the U.S. is important, but Japan needs to be able to defend its own territory.”

Members of the Western Army Infantry Regiment were among the 1,000 SDF personnel who took part in the multilateral exercise in California in June.

“The Japanese are certainly not at the level of, just put a couple guys on a boat and call it amphibious — they’re way beyond that,” said Maj. Gen. John J. Broadmeadow in an interview at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Southern California, after the exercise — the first of its kind overseas to involve the MSDF, GSDF and the Air Self-Defense Force.

Japan set aside ¥2.5 billion this year to buy four amphibious vehicles and more funds to research the Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft used by the U.S. Marine Corps. The aircraft can take off and land like helicopters aboard a relatively small ship but fly long distances like fixed-wing planes.

The U.S. Marines have previously deployed the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey to capture a Taliban leader in Afghanistan and to rescue an airman in Libya, as well as to transport water and medical supplies after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, according to Bell Helicopter Textron Inc.’s website.

The Japanese are learning to integrate their military better, Broadmeadow said, incorporating lessons learned from the U.S. military’s Operation Tomodachi relief effort after the March 2011 quake and tsunami. During the Dawn Blitz drills, SDF soldiers and sailors sat side by side in a command center aboard a ship, from where they could view both sea and land maps, Broadmeadow added, calling the setup “a tremendous accomplishment.”

While Japan’s forces are making strides in amphibious training, some in the ruling coalition are playing down the extent of the potential transformation. While the LDP submitted its plan for the national defense guidelines, New Komeito is compiling a proposal of its own.

“We are not considering anything like the capability the U.S. forces have,” New Komeito head Natsuo Yamaguchi said in an interview last month. “We need cautious debate about how far it’s acceptable to strengthen the existing unit within purely defensive limits, so that no unnecessary threat is posed to neighboring countries.”

Yamaguchi said he is wary of any attempt to obtain pre-emptive strike capability and added budget increases will be limited as Japan’s social security burden balloons due to its aging and contracting population.

A Yomiuri Shimbun poll found 54 percent of respondents believed the pacifist Article 9 of the Constitution, under which Japan renounces the right to wage war or maintain a military force, shouldn’t be amended, while 36 percent believed that it should.

The paper polled 1,472 people by phone March 30-31 and gave no margin of error.

According to an Asahi Shimbun survey, only around 6 percent of the respondents cited diplomacy and security as the key issues for the House of Councilors election, against 25 percent who nominated the economy. The newspaper surveyed 946 people June 29-30, but did not disclose a margin of error.

“Having a marines-style force does not just mean being able to land, you must have the right equipment,” said Chiaki Akimoto, director of the Japan office of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, a U.K.-based think tank. “It’s no simple matter and it costs a lot of money.”

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