SDF strengthening in southwest Japan includes plan for military clash, not residents’ evacuation

SDF strengthening in southwest Japan includes plan for military clash, not residents’ evacuation

June 23, 2019 Ryukyu Shimpo

While the Ministry of Defense (MOD) strengthens defense capabilities in southwest Japan, the Japan Ground Self-Defense Forces (GSDF) is conducting island recovery drills in case of invasion. Defense facilities near the national border are equipped with radar and missile elements, as those are likely to be the first targets in case of an emergency. The Sakishima Islands including Miyako and Yaeyama, where Self-Defense Force (SDF) deployment is moving forward, are no exception. It remains to be seen what deploying SDF forces to this “[militarily] empty space” will bring about. If island recapture operations are implemented, it is not clear what will happen to the residents living there.

Some are concerned that Chinese military fighter planes could destroy SDF radar sites on Miyako Island and Yonaguni Island at some point in the future 2000s. At the same time, soldiers might come ashore on Yonaguni Island and Tarama Island from transport aircraft and military vessels, gaining control over the islands’ residents. In a live-action adapted movie of the original Kubo Ibuki manga, a military clash around Sakishima between Chinese and Japanese forces over possession of the Senkaku Islands unfolds. The movie depicts the Japanese government declaring its first defensive dispatch since World War II, an air battle between SDF F-35Bs and Chinese military fighter planes, and recapture operations of the occupied islands.

Will something of this nature really occur? Former SDF officials and intellectuals have various perspectives on this question.

Nozomu Yoshitomi, a former GSDF major general with over thirty years enlisted experience and a professor at Nihon University, spoke about a potential emergency: “There is also a ‘grey’ means of occupation, in which [soldiers] would come in a form that would not appear to be military. It is possible they would come on fishing boats or cruise ships.”

Professor Yoshitomi went on the explain the necessity of deterrence by means of GSDF deployment, saying, “The Senkaku Islands and Taiwan are neighbor to Sakishima, so not provisioning Sakishima would send the clear message, ‘We are uninterested in defending [that region],’ which invites invasion.”

However, military affairs commentator Tetsuo Maeda is doubtful about island recapture tactics. Maeda said: “If [the issue] of recapturing the Senkaku Islands or outlying islands is highlighted to the Japanese people, they will more readily accept deployment of the GSDF. It is difficult to imagine an actual attack on Ishigaki Island or Miyako Island.”
In regard to GSDF deployment, Maeda judged, “The aim of containing China is concealed under the name of recapturing outlying islands; when push comes to shove, [the deployment] is meant to demonstrate the ability to block the ocean area between Okinawa’s main island and the Sakishima Islands.”

There are about 100,000 people living on the Sakishima Islands, and numbers of tourists to the islands also increase year after year. If an island was to be targeted and become a battleground, it remains to be seen if the private citizens living there could be protected. Within the details of island recapture drills and publicly accessible MOD analytical data, there is emphasis on tactical information, yet perspectives on protecting residents appear to have been left out. This indicates that resident protection is of low priority. There are also people who have similiar opinions to one active-duty SDF official, who frankly stated, “Resident protection is primarily a duty of the municipality, not the SDF.”

When Professor Yoshitomi was asked if resident protection has become a secondary concern, he answered, “The SDF also feels strongly that there must never be a repetition of the Battle of Okinawa, yet the discussion of resident protection is not moving forward.”

Due to the Civil Protection Law established in 2004, municipalities must formulate a “Civil Protection Plan” in preparation for emergencies or other contingencies. Ishigaki and Miyako cities made such plans, yet places to take refuge on the small islands and the means to evacuate a population of 50,000 off the islands are limited and scarce.

Makoto Konishi is a journalist and former Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) member who opposed the GSDF deployment plan. He claims there is currently a “seamless” attitude that does not differentiate between conflict or war and peacetime emergencies, making citizen protection difficult. Konishi said, “Whether citizens are evacuated to a nearby island or accommodated somewhere on [their own] island, if a blockade is set up on the ocean, transport ships will not be able to pass, missile units will be moving about and engaging in combat, and the battlefield will stretch throughout the islands.”

Last year in November the National Diet addressed some MOD internal documents concerning recapture tactics in case of a battle on Ishigaki Island. Minister of Defense Takeshi Iwaya was asked about the lack of consideration to citizen protection, to which he answered, “While we give the greatest consideration to citizen protection, it is natural to consider recapture in case of an invasion.” Even though the resident safety debate is up in the air, the SDF deployment plan is progressing.

◇ Terminology

The Plan of Retaking Off-shore Islands is the strategy for recapturing islands in the case of an invasion. Supposing there is an attack on the island area, the MOD places the Ground, Maritime, and Air Self-Defense Forces together to serve as one part of island defense. The MOD’s fundamental reasoning is to develop forces before an opponent invades, blocking such an invasion. Even so, if the situation worsens and there is an invasion prior to these developments, the MOD will implement the Plan of Retaking Off-shore Islands.

Last year in March the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade was established as a specialized force to shoulder such strategies, and is known as the Japanese version of the Marine Corps. The Brigade was strengthened in March this year, and is currently comprised of about 2,400 people. It is also implementing joint training with the U.S. military. In November last year internal MOD documents from 2012 were made public, in which Ishigaki Island was judged to be a site likely to be invaded and the MOD considered necessities such as military strength for island recapture attempts.

(English translation by T&CT and Erin Jones)

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