Japan to set up 3 military outposts near isles claimed by China: Report

JAPAN plans to set up military outposts on three islands far west of Tokyo to boost the defence of its outlying islands, including a group of rocky outcrops also claimed by China.

Some 350 troops will be stationed at each of the outposts in the south-west, not far from the Senkaku islands that China claims and calls Diaoyu, said a report in the largest-circulating Yomiuri Shimbun daily yesterday.

Not only can the troops be rapidly deployed to deal with any possible attack on Japan's outlying islands, but they will also be mobilised in the event of natural disasters occurring in the area.

The outposts are to be set up by March 2019, the report said.

Following Japan's nationalisation of a few of the Senkaku isles in September 2012, Chinese naval ships have repeatedly entered waters claimed by Japan around the disputed isles, confronting ships manned by Japan's Coast Guard.

The new troop deployment also comes amid rising tensions in the region caused by China's jousting with Vietnam and the Philippines over territorial issues in the South China Sea.

Two of the outposts are to be established on Ishigaki and Miyako islands, 170km and 210km respectively from the Senkakus.

Later this week, Deputy Defence Minister Ryota Takeda is due to visit Amami Oshima - where the third outpost is expected to be located - to request the local government authorities to participate in a joint survey for the construction of camp facilities. Amami Oshima lies some 150km south of the Senkakus.

Boosting the defence of Japan's outlying islands "is in a sense also strengthening the Japan-United States security alliance", an unnamed senior defence official told the Yomiuri.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga acknowledged that the government was working to enhance the military presence in the south-west, but denied it had decided on the specific locations.

Last Friday, 1,300 troops from the three arms of Japan's Self Defence Force began a week-long drill during which they would carry out troop landings on an uninhabited island and later recapture it from a fictitious enemy.

Besides limited air force facilities, the lack of any substantial military presence in Japan's southwestern flank, an area running roughly from Kyushu up to almost the Taiwanese coast, leaves the area vulnerable to China's increasingly assertive maritime stance.

But the three new outposts are not the only means of beefing up the defence of that area.

Under its medium-term defence build-up programme, the government is also doubling the number of F-15 fighter planes in Naha city, on the main Okinawa island, to about 40 planes in two years' time.

Last month, a ground-breaking ceremony for a radar surveillance unit to be manned by 150 troops was held on Yonaguni, Japan's westernmost inhabited island lying just 108km from the Taiwanese coast.

The unit will be responsible for gathering intelligence on ships and planes in the area.

Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera, speaking in Yonaguni, said: "The deployment of this unit will help to fill the vacuum in our south-western region. The troops have a big role to play."

Japan is hoping that the increased presence of its military in its south-western flank will also deter China's navy from attempting to sail to the Pacific Ocean through the Japanese archipelago, as it has done several times in the past in defiance of Tokyo.

wengkin@sph.com.sg