(Nikkei: January 1, 2015 – p. 21)
By 2020, Japan will be facing an even harsher security environment. In light of China’s increasing military power and other changes, the government will step up efforts to launch an amphibious special force responsible for the defense of remote islands. Urgent measures also need to be taken to deal with cyberattacks ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games. The year 2015 will mark the start of efforts to reinforce defense at the water’s edge.
On Nov. 16, the Ground Self-Defense Force’s Western Army Infantry Regiment conducted a drill to take back an occupied island on Eniyabanare-jima, an uninhabited island south of Amami-Oshima, amid strong winds. It was a highly-charged exercise closely resembling actual combat operations.
The Western Army’s Infantry Regiment has around 700 members. They are tapped to be the mainstay of the amphibious special force to be created by FY2017. This force will deploy amphibious vehicles and the vertical takeoff and landing aircraft Osprey for rapid response to contingencies involving remote islands. The special force will have 2,000 members initially, expanding to 3,000 by around 2020. The plan to acquire 52 amphibious vehicles is being frontloaded for two years to FY2018, with 30 of them to be procured in FY2015, making this an important year for preparations to set up the force.
The special force is focused on the Nansei Islands, in whose westernmost part are located the Senkaku Islands of Okinawa, which are claimed by China. GSDF Chief of Staff Kiyofumi Iwata, 57, stresses the importance of strengthening defense in this area, pointing out: “There has been a power vacuum until now. How to overcome problems in the maritime environment is a major issue.”
What the GSDF constantly has in mind is China, which has become very active in the East China Sea. The Tokyo Foundation, a private think tank, has pointed to the possibility of a major change in the gap in U.S. and Chinese military power, indicating that the Chinese military budget may overtake U.S. defense allocations in 20 years. Considering the U.S. will continue to pursue disarmament and the Chinese military budget is actually about 40% more than what it is making public, Tokyo Foundation also estimates that the two countries may be about equal in military spending by 2025.
China reportedly plans to launch two home-made aircraft carriers in the early 2020s, which will enhance its air force’s combat capability tremendously. It is also said to be building ships that can carry landing craft for large scale landing operations, which might be completed by as early as 2020. Keio University Associate Professor Ken Jimbo warns that Japan “may not be able to maintain maritime and air superiority over China.”
On the other hand, Japan will improve its capability to engage in joint operations with the U.S. forces by revising the Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation Guidelines. SDF Chief of Staff Katsutoshi Kawano, 60, says he wants to “improve integrated operational capability to strengthen Japan’s defense.”
It is also necessary to enhance cooperation with friendly countries. Working together with Australia, India, the ASEAN states, and other countries will be more effective in prodding China to exercise restraint. The worst scenario is for Japan to be isolated in the Asian region, so its diplomatic skills will be put to the test.
For sure, it is also necessary to make further diplomatic efforts – similar to efforts made to resume bilateral summit talks last year – to strengthen the relationship between the no. 2 and no. 3 economic powers in the world by 2020. It is important to leverage economic exchanges to step up efforts to set up crisis management mechanisms as political exchanges are being restored. Shrewdness will also be indispensable in efforts to improve military preparedness. (Slightly abridged)