Japan’s Defense Ministry is considering creating a special island assault unit to help it deal with Tokyo’s ongoing standoff with China over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.
In a meeting of the ruling-Liberal Democracy Party (LDP) this week, defense officials said the new unit would be trained to fortify islands and, if necessary, recapture ones that were lost, a number of Japanese media outlets reported. The new special assault unit would supplement the Self-Defense Force Western Army Infantry Regiment, which is made up of Special Forces modeled off the U.S. Marine Corps who are located in Nagasaki Prefecture and responsible for protecting remote islands like the Senkakus.
The proposed special assault unit was part of a larger LDP effort to strengthen Japan’s Self Defense Force’s (SDF) capabilities for dealing with challenges to remote islands. Tokyo previously announced plans to expand the size of the Western Army Infantry Regiment during the current fiscal year ending in March, the Japan Times reported.
This week the LDP also announced it was considering equipping the SDF with commercial vessels and aircraft to more quickly respond to intrusions by China on Japanese waters surrounding the islands. Chinese maritime and occasional military assets regularly patrol near the disputed islands.
There have also been discussions about equipping Japanese troops with U.S.-built MV-22 Osprey transport aircraft, despite concerns about the aircraft’s safety among some Japanese. U.S. Marines currently operate Ospreys from bases in Okinawa, Japan.
Perhaps most controversial, earlier this week Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, announced that his government would “need to study” the possibility of giving the SDF the authority to mount offensive attacks on enemy bases. Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera refuted suggestions that this type of operation would violate the SDF’s constitutionally-mandated pacifist mission.
“It will not pose any legal problems if Japan has the capability to attack an enemy base,” Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said.
He added that “various discussions” will need to take place before the mission is approved in an apparent reference to talking with allies and partners about the proposed changes.
Japanese military personnel are current participating in Dawn Blitz 2013, a U.S.-led multinational military exercise in California that will also include New Zealand and Canada this year. This is the first time Japan’s military forces are participating in Dawn Blitz, which began on Tuesday and lasts through June 26. One USMC officer called this year’s drill “historic.”
China opposed the decision to include Japan in the Dawn Blitz 2013 exercises, owing to drills where the U.S. Marines and the SDF will practice amphibious assaults like the ones that would be used to invade islands.
Japan was expected to send about a 1,000 military personnel from the Air, Maritime, and Ground Forces to participate in the exercise, along with three warships including two amphibious assault ships.
It’s unclear how the U.S. will respond to Prime Minister Abe’s desire to authorize the SDF’s to attack adversary’s bases. Although Washington insists it doesn’t take sides in sovereignty issues, it has repeatedly stated that the Japanese-administered Senkakus fall under the U.S.-Japan Defense Treaty, obliging the U.S. to respond to any attack on the islands.
On the other hand, the Obama administration is reportedly frustrated by Prime Minister Abe and LDP officials’ comments about Japan’s conduct during WWII, especially suggestions that Tokyo’s past apologies for its WWII behavior would be “reviewed.”
On Wednesday, Jeffrey Bader, who formerly served in the Obama administration as Director of Asian Affairs on the U.S. National Security Council, said the U.S. could become “vocal” should the LDP follow through on its threats to review Japan’s past apologies.
“The handling of historical issues in the last couple of months by Japanese leaders has not been adroit, to put it mildly,” Bader said at the Center for a New American Security’s (CNAS) annual conference in Washington.