Earlier this fall, the Yaeyama Defense Association (YDA) petitioned the central government to request the Maritime Self-Defense Force establish a presence in the southernmost part of the Nansei Islands.
The YDA is an active and influential group of 140 business and political leaders in Ishigaki and nearby islands formed in the 1970s following Okinawa Prefecture’s reversion to Japan. It includes former personnel from the SDF and has played a key role in facilitating the establishment of a Ground Self-Defense Force missile base, currently under construction, on Ishigaki Island itself.
The popular three-term mayor of Ishigaki City, Yoshitaka Nakayama, serves as the Association’s honorary advisor. A conservative, Nakayama was first elected in early 2010 at the age of 42 despite the nation’s voters having chosen the center-left (and now defunct) Democratic Party of Japan the previous fall.
As one of Japan’s frontier islands, Ishigaki’s voters have a keen awareness of national security needs. This is especially true in recent years as China’s territorial ambitions toward the Senkaku Islands, which historically have administratively belonged to Ishigaki, have become unmistakably clear. Security consciousness is also high on Yonaguni and Miyako, two outer islands that host SDF facilities.
On Oct. 20, the YDA’s longtime chairman, Iwao Miki, visited the Defense Ministry in Ichigaya with six other members of the Association’s executive committee. There he presented a one-page petition requesting the new Minister of Defense, Nobuo Kishi, consider establishing a base of operations for the MSDF in the Yaeyama area. Several officials from the Defense Policy Division met with the group and accepted the letter on behalf of the minister, the younger brother of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The YDA had previously approved the petition at its meeting on Sept. 11, almost ten years to the date of a Chinese trawler (the Minjinyu 5179) intentionally ramming two Japan Coast Guard (JCG) vessels, the Yonakuni and Mizuki, in Japan’s territorial waters.
The Association had long felt the need for such a presence. In July, Miki proposed it at the group’s executive committee meeting. The second wave of COVID-19 in Okinawa prevented the calling of its annual general meeting and, instead, the final version of the petition was approved at the September gathering.
The Yoshihide Suga administration was born the following week on Sept. 16, following Abe’s resignation after eight years in office. Under Abe’s leadership, Japan increased its defense budget (cut during the DPJ years), revised the U.S.-Japan Guidelines for Security Cooperation, passed new security legislation and changed its interpretation on the use of the SDF. Japan also signed Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreements with numerous friendly nations. Moreover, it completed the deployment of GSDF to Yonaguni Island (in March 2016) and Miyako and Amami-Oshima islands (in March 2019), established the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (a Marine-like unit within the GSDF) in March 2018, and began the construction of the GSDF base on Ishigaki in March 2019. Furthermore, it greatly increased the strength of the Japan Coast Guard in Ishigaki and doubled the number of Air Self-Defense Force F-15s at the ASDF’s Naha Base in 2016 and created the Border Islands Security Force within the Okinawa Prefectural Police in April 2020.
While these measures are good and necessary, experts — me included — do not believe this is enough. That is why we welcome the petition to develop an MSDF presence in the area. Indeed, one specialist, U.S. Marine Corps Col. Grant Newsham (retired), half-jokingly said, “any sensible person might reasonably respond on hearing [this] idea to bring the MSDF to Ishigaki and the area: ‘You mean they aren’t there already? Why the hell not?’.”
This proposal is not a fix-all, however. Expanding their ability to do joint operations with their sister services in the SDF and with other agencies, such as the JCG, will be important. Moreover, the type of ships to be deployed, their location and facilities to be used, etc., will have to be decided against competing and limited budgetary and manpower requirements. Indeed, current and former defense officials, including those from the MSDF, worry that Japan does not have the ability however to deploy to Ishigaki in the first place.
The Association understands it might take time as well as a shift in resources and thinking. Miki, for example, believes it might take from three to 10 years for his proposal to become a reality. But it is vital to get the ball rolling, quickly.
For this reason, I would like to suggest that in the interim, U.S. Navy vessels join the MSDF in doing regular port visits to Ishigaki and other islands in the area on a rotational basis. The merits are obvious to planners and operators and do not need to be spelled out here.
Further, Japan’s deepening relations with the Quad means these port visits could be increased to allow Australian and Indian navy ships to participate. Moreover, Japan’s increasingly close ties to France, Canada and Britain, with whom Japan also has ACSAs, make their navies perfect complements.
Were this done, port visits could take place monthly with every second visit being an MSDF ship and the odd-numbered visits being conducted by a friendly foreign navy. This would reduce the burden on the MSDF until it was ready to deploy in a full-time capacity and increase interoperability in the meantime.
Robert D. Eldridge is author of “The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem” (Routledge, 2001) and other works on Okinawa and U.S.-Japan relations. He served as the political adviser to the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa from 2009 to 2015.
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