Oct 25, 2013 | 15:46 GMT

3 mins read

Japan's Latest Military Exercise Sends a Message to China

Japan's Latest Military Exercise Sends a Message to China

At a time when the Chinese are greatly accelerating the pace of their training exercises in the Pacific, the Japanese are also strengthening their defensive capabilities in remote islands to the southwest to counter the Chinese moves. On Oct. 24, the Japanese government announced a major exercise intended to increase its ability to protect its remote southwestern islands. The exercises on both sides are a reminder that, besides historical grievances, the countries are engaged in a geopolitical competition in the Western Pacific region.

Some 34,000 troops from air, land and naval units are scheduled to take part in Japan's live-fire exercise, which will be held Nov. 1-18. It appears the exercises will include amphibious landings on the remote island of Okidaito-jima, 400 kilometers (250 miles) southeast of the main Okinawa Island. Similar amphibious landings scheduled during another large-scale exercise last year were reportedly canceled at the last moment in response to Chinese complaints.

Meanwhile, China is also staging its own large-scale exercises across the region. Over the past few years the Chinese have sought to improve their combat effectiveness and training to match their increasingly modern military equipment. They have focused on exercises to improve coordination between their different military commands and services. China is also increasing its military capability in part to help bolster its claim on various disputed islands in the region, such as the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese) and the Spratly Islands, for military reasons and to gain access to the suspected wealth of natural resources around them.

The latest announced Chinese drills involve the Maneuver 5 exercise, in which vessels from all Chinese navy fleets will pass through the so-called first island chain into the Western Pacific, where they are scheduled to take part in the People's Liberation Army Navy's largest unscripted exercise to date. Tokyo has been closely watching China's steady military modernization. Japan's increased focus on its southwestern islands demonstrates the attention given to the Chinese threat in Japanese military strategic planning, as reflected in the 2010 National Defense Program Guidelines, and in all subsequent domestic debates over new guidelines, reforms of national security institutions and reinterpretations of the constitution.

For the upcoming exercise, Japan announced that it would for the first time deploy land-based Type 88 surface-to-ship missiles to Miyako-jima and on the southern tip of Okinawa's main island. Though the missiles are not scheduled to fire during the exercises, their deployment is important because stationing batteries of Type 88 missiles in such a way would effectively put the entire passage between Okinawa-jima and Miyako-jima under the coverage of Japanese land-based surface-to-ship missiles. The Japanese deny that the deployment is aimed at any specific party, but given that the Chinese navy is increasingly using the same passage through the first island chain and into the Pacific, the deployment is sure to send a strong message to Beijing.

The Japanese Self-Defense Forces have also sought to strengthen their military forces on the Ryukyu Islands, also part of the first island chain. To do so, Japan has been increasing air and naval patrols, enlarging air base infrastructure and expanding amphibious training with the U.S. military to develop the capability to take back any islands seized by another force.

All in all, the Japanese exercises and deployments show that, despite some Chinese military claims of having "dismembered" the first island chain as an obstacle, transiting the first island chain in peacetime is entirely different from attempting the same feat during a conflict with Japan.

The Chinese dispute with Japan does not rest primarily on differences over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands but also reflects the wider geopolitical competition between the two countries in the Western Pacific. Geographically, the Japanese are poised to contain the Chinese in their attempts to break out into the wider Pacific region. In addition, China's growing military strength is fueling Tokyo's drive toward full military normalization.

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