TOKYO • Japan yesterday activated its first marine unit since World War II, trained to counter invaders occupying Japanese islands along the edge of the East China Sea that Tokyo fears are vulnerable to attack by China.
In a ceremony at a military base near Sasebo on the south-western island of Kyushu, about 1,500 members of the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB) wearing camouflage lined up under cold, windy conditions.
"Given the increasingly difficult defence and security situation surrounding Japan, defence of our islands has become a critical mandate," said Vice-Defence Minister Tomohiro Yamamoto in a speech.
The troops conducted a 20-minute mock exercise to recapture a remote island from invaders.
The formation of the Japanese marine brigade is controversial because amphibious units can project military force and could, critics warn, be used to threaten Japan's neighbours. Japan, in its post-World War II Constitution, renounced the right to wage war.
The brigade is the latest component of a growing marine force that includes helicopter carriers, amphibious ships, Osprey tilt-rotor troop carriers and amphibious assault vehicles, meant to deter China as it pushes for easier access to the Western Pacific.
China, which dominates the South China Sea and claims a group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea controlled by Tokyo, is spending 1.11 trillion yuan (S$231 billion) on its armed forces this year, more than three times as much as Japan.
The activation of the 2,100-strong ARDB takes Japan a step closer to creating a force similar to a US Marine Expeditionary Unit which is able to plan and execute operations at sea far from its home base.
"If Japan put its mind to it, within a year or year and a half it could have a reasonable capability," said Colonel Grant Newsham, a research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.
Col Newsham, who helped train Japan's first amphibious troops as a US Marine Corps liaison officer assigned to the Ground Self-Defence Force, said the country still needs a joint navy-army amphibious headquarters to coordinate operations as well as more amphibious ships to carry troops and equipment.
Japan's Air Self Defence Force wants to acquire F-35Bs to operate from its Izumo and Ise helicopter carriers, or from islands along the East China Sea, sources have told Reuters.
Separately, the Ground Self-Defence Force may acquire small amphibious ships up to 100m long to transport troops and equipment between islands and from ship to shore, two sources familiar with the discussion said. Japanese ground forces have not operated their own ships since World War II.