National / Politics

Japan expanding GSDF's presence on southwestern islands with new bases and missile batteries

JIJI

The government is pushing ahead with plans to build new Ground Self-Defense Force bases on remote islands in the southwest in response to military threats from China.

On March 26, GSDF bases are due to be opened in the city of Amami and the town of Setouchi, both on Amami Oshima island in Kagoshima Prefecture. About 560 troops will be stationed at the bases.

Surface-to-air missile systems will be deployed at the Amami base, while land-to-sea missiles and an ammunition depot will be placed at the Setouchi base.

Another GSDF base will be opened on the same day on Miyako Island in Okinawa Prefecture. That base will initially host 380 soldiers, but will eventually expand to host some 700 to 800 troops once surface-to-air and land-to-sea missiles are deployed in fiscal 2019.

In the meantime, work to lay the groundwork for yet another GSDF base has started on Ishigaki Island in Okinawa. The city of Ishigaki includes the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan but also claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu, and Taiwan, which calls them Tiaoyutai.

The government plans to situate the base in the Hiraeomata area, around the center of Ishigaki Island, and man it with 500 to 600 troops plus a missile unit.

The Ishigaki base project has raised environmental worries among residents, including those concerning the island’s water supply.

A civil group that started a petition drive for a referendum on the project collected signatures from about 40 percent of the voters. Last month, however, the Ishigaki Municipal Assembly voted down a bill to hold the referendum. The Defense Ministry then started the foundation work this month.

The ministry estimates that the cost of developing the four new bases will reach about ¥170 billion.

A chain of islands from Amami Oshima to the main island of Okinawa and the Sakishima Islands, including Miyako, Ishigaki and the Senkakus, almost overlaps the so-called first island chain that is strategically important to China.

The Chinese military is increasingly active around the island chain. In January 2018, what appeared to be a Chinese submarine was spotted in waters near Miyako.

In 2016, the Defense Ministry opened a GSDF base on the country’s westernmost island, Yonaguni. In the event of an emergency in the region, an amphibious unit whose main mission will be to recapture remote islands is expected to be sent from its base in Nagasaki Prefecture, along with reinforcements from elsewhere.

To prepare for such a scenario, the GSDF is proceeding with the reorganization of brigades and divisions across the country to improve maneuverability.

Under the initiative, mobile regiments with 800 troops each have been formed at the GSDF’s Kitakumamoto base in Kumamoto Prefecture and the Zentsuji base in Kagawa Prefecture. These regiments are equipped with mobile combat vehicles that have firepower equal to conventional tanks and travel at speeds up to 100 kph.

Similar regiments are set to be formed at the Takikawa base in Hokkaido and the Tagajo base in Miyagi Prefecture this month, according to the ministry.

The GSDF is also thinking of regularly deploying amphibious troops aboard a transport vessel around remote southwestern islands in the East China Sea, ministry sources said.

“We aim to increase deterrence by showing the existence of troops specialized in the defense of islands,” a senior ministry official said.