Japan putting missiles on Pacific gateway island

TOKYO (AFP) - Japan's military is to station four unarmed missiles on an island that sits on the gateway to the Pacific, officials said on Thursday, for a major drill that has made China nervous.

The exercise, aimed at bolstering defence of Japan's southern islands, has already seen a launching system and a loader for Type-88 surface-to-ship missiles installed on Miyako island.

"This is the first time" that missile systems have been taken to Miyako, said a spokesman for the Joint Staff of the Self Defence Forces, adding that the missiles could not be fired in their present state.

"The drill is designed for the defence of islands," he said.

While the Japanese military makes no secret of the fact these missiles are not operable, observers say their deployment serves to remind anyone watching of Japan's capabilities.

The missiles were expected to arrive later Thursday and it was not clear how long they would stay for.

The Self Defense Forces began their 18 days of war games on November 1, with 34,000 military personnel, six vessels and 360 aircraft.

The exercise comes amid growing nervousness in Japan and other parts of Asia over China's surging military might, which has seen it expand its naval reach into the Pacific Ocean as it squabbles with Tokyo over the ownership of islands in the East China Sea.

It also has separate disputes with numerous countries over competing claims to territories in the South China Sea, which China claims as virtually all its own.

Chinese naval assets stationed in the north of the country are somewhat hemmed in by the chain of Japanese islands that separate the East China Sea and the Pacific. The strait between Miyako and the main island of Okinawa offers one of the few direct access points.

Tokyo has officially said the drill is not aimed at any specific nation, but Japanese leaders have openly expressed their disquiet as China escalates its territorial claims.

The Self Defence Force is also preparing to form a special amphibious unit, much like the US Marine Corps, whose remit would be to defend small islands and to take them back in case of enemy attacks.

Beijing has routinely sent government vessels to disputed islands in the East China Sea, staging dangerous face-offs between the two nations' coastguards.

The ongoing Japanese drill has irritated Beijing, where local media said there was no doubt it was targeting China.

The Global Times newspaper, which is close to the ruling Communist Party, reported on its front page Thursday that Japan's decision to bring the missiles to Miyako was "an unprecedented move that experts say is targeted at blocking the Chinese navy".

"The missile deployment is mainly set against China and it can pose real threats to the Chinese navy," Li Jie, an expert on China's navy, told the paper.

Beijing's military, through state media, has accused Tokyo of interfering in Chinese live-fire drills in the Pacific last month, an allegation that Japan denied.

Ties between Japan and China, which are routinely strained by unresolved historical grievances, have deteriorated in recent years, with emotional nationalism fanning the flames of the territorial dispute.