Time to create task force for Japan’s Southern Islands – or lose them

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The People’s Republic of China is easy to figure out. It always telegraphs its punches. Regarding the Senkaku Islands – or the Diaoyu Islands, as the Chinese call them – Beijing has been crystal clear: they are Chinese territory and “when the time is right” they will return to Chinese control.

You know what’s coming: Chinese fishing boats will swarm the islands, backed by the Chinese Coast Guard, with the PLA Navy over the horizon and the PLA Air Force overhead. In tandem, the Chinese government will declare it is simply ensuring maritime safety in what has been Chinese territory since ancient times.

The Senkakus are just the appetizer, though. The main course will be the entire Nansei Shoto (also known as the Ryukyu Islands) – which China also claims. After that, Taiwan will be the cherry on top – as one observer noted years ago.

Unthinkable? A decade ago the idea that the PRC would have de facto control over the South China Sea or a major base in Djibouti was similarly unthinkable.

If the PRC moved on the Senkakus today, the Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF) response (like that of the Japanese government) would be ad hoc, disjointed, and always a step behind the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Without a change of course, things will get worse. The JSDF will be at an increasing disadvantage as China builds more ships and aircraft, and (just as importantly), as PLA operational capabilities improve.

In particular, the PLA has steadily improved its ability to combine air, sea, and ground forces to operate coherently together (“jointly”) – the key to modern warfare.

This is the heart of the problem. Even improving individual service capabilities or putting more Japanese forces in the Nansei Shoto region are of limited value if the JSDF can’t operate “jointly.”

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Absent this capability (the equivalent of one’s arms and legs operating  as the brain tells them to), the JSDF is far less than the sum of its parts.
And if the Japanese government’s unstated plan is that US forces will “make up the difference,” this is wishful thinking. It will not be a vote-getter in Washington if Japan is perceived as doing less than it can to defend itself.

Moreover, time matters when crises occur. By the time the Japanese and the Americans sort things out, the PRC will have solid control of the Senkakus (or wherever they grab) and the only option will be going to war. That’s a daunting prospect.

It’s all doubly unfortunate given that it could have been prevented with a little forethought and modest effort.

Getting it right

Even though the Japanese government is hell-bent on not spending more on defense, there are useful things it can do. Foremost is establishing a Joint Task Force-Nansei Shoto (JTF-NS) with the mission of defending the Nansei Shoto.

JTF-NS will have forces (including Japan Coast Guard ships) under its command and responsibility for all aspects of Nansei Shoto defense. In addition to MSDF, GSDF, ASDF, and JCG operations, it also directs anti-submarine warfare, mine-warfare, air and missile defense operations, and land-based anti-ship missile systems.

Most importantly, the JTF-NS forces JSDF leadership to cooperate – thus addressing a fundamental weakness. A JTF with the limited mission of Nansei Shoto defense requires each JSDF service to give up only a small amount of resources and authority – something JSDF commanders have resisted for decades.

Link JTF-NS with US forces

By itself, even an improved JSDF matches up poorly with the PLA. Combined with American forces, however, Chinese planners have a major headache – both operationally and in terms of everything that  comes of picking a fight with the United States.

The Japanese and the Americans need to fully develop real capabilities for defending the Nansei Shoto together. This includes regular joint JSDF-US patrols and exercises to the “west” of Okinawa in the East China Sea, and joint response plans for regional contingencies. And Washington must dispatch US Marine, Navy, and Air Force detachments to operate with Japanese forces on islands south of Okinawa.

Think through potential scenarios and contingencies, and practice, practice, practice. If you don’t plan and prepare in advance, get ready to lose. One reasonably asks, isn’t this already being done? Apparently not, even though it’s common sense.

Vessels from the China Maritime Surveillance and the Japan Coast Guard are seen near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Photo: Reuters / Kyodo

Vessels from the China Maritime Surveillance and the Japan Coast Guard are seen near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Photo: Reuters / Kyodo

A key part of this effort will be improving and linking JSDF and US sensor and intelligence gathering networks to ensure they know what’s going on and can shoot at the right targets – and not each other. One wishes this had been done years ago.

Beyond the exponentially better combat power produced by Japanese forces able to operate with each other and with US forces, there’s the favorable political and psychological knock-on effects that come of all  this – both in Tokyo and in Washington.

Making it real

JTF-NS can’t be just a three-ring binder that’s pulled off the shelf when the Chinese show up in the Nansei Shoto. Nor can it be a discussion group like the Alliance Coordination Mechanism that meets when  trouble arises.

Rather, it needs to be a permanent, ‘concrete’ organization – with a headquarters, assigned units and personnel. An organization that plans, trains, and if necessary fights.

Ideally, put it on Okinawa. Even better, construct it on Camp Courtney, adjacent to US Marine III MEF headquarters. And incorporate US personnel to make it a real Japan-US operation.

Other than the US Navy and the MSDF, American and Japanese forces have mostly had an “apartheid-like” relationship – separate and unequal.

Which JSDF service commands JTF-Nansei Shoto? It doesn’t matter. Just find an adult from one of the services who is willing to cooperate.

Obstacles to a JTF-NS

Many Japanese and American civilian and military officials will argue that all of this is “too hard.” No it isn’t. It’s only as hard as one wants to make it.

So get started now or be prepared to take a passport when visiting  China’s Nansei Shoto.

Grant Newsham is a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and a retired US Marine Officer

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