Hot on the heels of yesterday’s report back by the PM’s Council for National Security and Defense Buildup in the New Era, (where Michael Cucek rightly expands on my point about the importance (and hints at the incoherence) of the panels weak discussion to revise the non-introduction nuclear principle) comes further movements to change the configuration of the Japanese SDF’s human capabilities.
According to an Asahi Shimbun article here (jp), the MoD plan to convert a GSDF infantry regiment into a US-style amphibious unit is proceeding. Given the rapid modernization of Chinese defense forces, the plan will become an important part of the new and revised defense guidelines to be released at the end of the year. The new unit’s prime responsibility will be filling the perceived Nansei Island security vacuum between Tsushima and Yonaguni islands, which is 1200 kilometres North-South and 900 kilometres East-West. With an estimated 2500 islands, the only permanent forces responsible for the islands’ protection are the Okinawan 15th Brigade and a garrison on Tsushima (JGSDF Tsushima Area Security Force), with the rest being covered by the GSDF Western Army Infantry Regiment(Light) (WAiR) stationed in Nagasaki prefecture. WAiR’s ability to cover the region in case of an armed landing is, and has been in doubt for some time.
The thinking here is that either the JGSDF 8th Division (in Kumamoto) or an infantry regiment from the 15th Brigade be converted to not only provide relief in the case of disaster and other emergencies but also be equipped to recover islands taken by hostile forces. The model will be the US Marine Corps concept, and since 2006 WAiR and the 8th Division have already been training with the US Marines in California in activities related to recovering lost islands.
The focus on island defense and coping with invasion is actually already a part of the current defense plan guidelines. This change in posture dervies from the de-escalation in cold war tensions where an invasion by the Soviets in the North was considered a possibility, and the fact that China’s military modernisation has included the upgrading of landing craft and training of parachute troops. Added to this, the article mentions the April PLA(N) fleet’s encroachment upon Japanese territory in Okinawa, and in particular mentions the fleets’s new and state-of-the-art submarines. Given these developments, the focus on capabilities to match this new security need will be further developed in the year end’s defense program outline (officially National Defense Program Guidelines). Already a Vice-Minister of Defense, Nagashima Akihisa, who is the parliamentary official in charge of producing the new guidelines, has indicated the necessity of converting a GSDF unit into one with Marine capabilities.
The article discusses the fact that MoD and GSDF officials see the US Marine presence as being mainly directed at the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan Straits, not the Nansei Islands. It quotes a GSDF official as saying that Japan having its own force to fill this vacuum, without having to rely on the US would “send China a message.”
I believe that in terms of “selling” the idea of a Japanese “marine corps” to the public, this is the right approach. One of the perceptual problems with the US Marine Corps is the seemingly specific focus on contingencies in Korea and Taiwan, which sometimes leads the public to doubt in whose interests they are being deployed, especially when the US is in a more “aggressive” mode such as under the Bush administration. The Marines seem to be a key part of the Japanese fear of entrapment in US conflicts (which may, or may not be in Japan’s interests). While joint basing might become a key part of the US-Japan alliance going forward, a specific joint-basing arrangement between the US and Japanese “Marines” might not be all that popular for these reasons. To specifically equip the Japanese Marines with the ability to take back Japanese territory should a contingency arise, is going to be more satisfactory to the public, and should not push the constitutional envelope too much. It also very nicely complements the US forward deployed presence for the time being, in a critical period of potential insecurity for the likes of Japan and other countries in East Asia.