The East China Sea, the site of a territorial dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, is set to become more crowded. Japan is expected to deploy additional troops to an island near the disputed islands. Last Thursday, Japan’s deputy defense minister, Kenji Wakamiya, met with the mayor of Ishigaki Island to brief him on a plan to deploy 500 Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) ground troops there.
Ishigaki is southwest of Okinawa and part of the Ryukyu island chain in the East China Sea. The Ryukyus form the eastern frontier of the sea and head southeast from Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main islands. The disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are approximately 90 nautical miles northwest of Ishigaki. Notably, Ishigaki, for administrative purposes, exercises jurisdiction over the disputed islands.
If Tokyo moves forward with its plans to send ground troops to Ishigaki, it would represent a continuation of its defense policy in the East China Sea ever since bilateral tensions with China flared over the dispute in late-2012 and through 2013. Japan bolstered its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities in the East China Sea in 2014 when it moved SDF troops and set up a radar facility at Yonaguni Island. The radar facility on Yonaguni marked the first time in over 40 years that Japan had added a military installation west of Okinawa. In addition to Yonaguni, Tokyo plans to deploy additional troops to Miyakojima and Amami-Oshima islands by 2018.
Broadly, the SDF has long been preparing for a possible conflict in the East China Sea amid rising tensions with China. In May 2014, the SDF carried out a military exercise in Nagasaki prefecture and in waters off Okinawa’s eastern coast to simulate the defense of an island from amphibious invaders. Island defense has additionally been featured in Japan’s defense white papers in 2014 and 2015. The 2015 white paper devotes considerable attention to outlining the threat posed by China in the East China Sea. (For more on Japan’s most recent defense white paper, see here and here.)
Shortly following Wakamiya’s trip to Ishigaki, China staged a display of military power over the East China Sea. According to the Japanese defense ministry, on Friday, China flew eight bombers, two surveillance aircraft, and one early-warning aircraft near Okinawa (though none of the aircraft entered Japanese airspace). Beijing said the flyby was part of a scheduled exercise to improve the long-range combat capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Japan scrambled its jets in response to the Chinese drill.