China, Japan up military ante on the Nansei Islands

China has stepped up its naval and air drills around the Nansei/Ryukyu Islands, ratcheting tensions alongside a rapidly re-arming Japan.

Japan News recently reported that a Chinese carrier battlegroup spearheaded by the Liaoning has been conducting naval drills simulating an attack on the Nansei/Ryukyu Islands since December 16, with the exercises set to end on December 26.

The Chinese Communist Party-run Global Times identifies the ships as the Type 055 cruiser Lhasa, the Type 052D destroyer Kaifeng, the Type 903A replenishment ship Taihu, and the hull number 796 electronic reconnaissance vessel.

Japan News notes that the Type 055 and Type 052D are capable of land attacks and that the Liaoning’s air wing has started nighttime take-off and landing drills.

The report cites the Japanese Ministry of Defense saying that China’s carrier battle group entered the Western Pacific on December 16, passing through Okinawa and the Miyako Strait. The following day, the vessels were spotted 260 kilometers west-southwest of Okidaito Island, with Japan reportedly last spotting them 450 kilometers off Kitadaito Island.

The source says ship-borne aircraft can reach the Nansei/Ryukyu Islands in five to 10 minutes from the last known location. It also mentions that China will rehearse long-range missile strikes on the Nansei/Ryukyu Islands, on which Japan plans to base long-range cruise missiles, and that 130 shipborne helicopter and aircraft landings have already been conducted.

These exercises come after Japan unveiled a record-breaking US$55 billion defense budget for 2023, a 20% increase from the previous year, in response to rising China and North Korea security concerns.

Reports indicated that Japan’s budget increase is part of its new National Security Strategy that aims to bring defense spending up to 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2027, matching NATO standards and turning Japan into the third-largest military spender worldwide after the US and China.

Just right: Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) soldiers position the PAC-3 missile unit. Photo: Reuters/Issei Kato
Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) soldiers position the PAC-3 missile unit. Photo: Agencies

It also mentions that Japan’s new strategy and increased defense spending aim to provide a “counterstrike capability” against China, Russia and North Korea.

The Financial Times reported last week that Japan would spend $313 billion over the next five years to purchase US-made Tomahawk cruise missiles, upgrade its anti-ship missiles, develop hypersonic weapons, upgrade its Patriot missile radars, create a 20,000-strong cyber team and procure critical supplies such as ammunition and fuel.

The Nansei/Ryukyu Islands hold significant strategic military value for both China and Japan. In a September 2021 article for the peer-reviewed Journal of Territorial and Maritime Studies, David Scott mentions that small islands like the Nansei/Ryukyu have a “suction effect” on great powers as they can serve as logistics staging points, protective barriers, forward operating bases and geographical markers to extend maritime claims.

In an October 2013 OPRI Center for Island Studies article, Akimoto Kazumine notes that during the Cold War the Nansei/Ryukyu Islands acted as a containment line for the US and Japan against Soviet naval forces.

Today, Kazumine says that the modernizing People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) is rapidly expanding its activities on the high seas, but first must pass through the Nansei/Ryukyu Islands to reach the Western Pacific and through the disputed South China Sea to reach the Indian Ocean.

With the Nansei/Ryukyu Island’s strategic value in mind, China and Japan view these features through the respective lenses of their military strategies. First, Scott notes that China wants to break through the so-called First Island Chain, which spans the Kuril and Nansei Islands in Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and northern Borneo.

China has multiple reasons why it wants to break out of the First Island Chain. Asia Times has previously noted that the limited range of China’s JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) may force its nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) to sail into the Western Pacific to hit targets in the US mainland.

However, China may be eliminating this limitation by developing the newer JL-3 SLBM, which can hit targets in the US mainland from protected bastions in the South China Sea.

Besides getting its SSBNs within missile firing range to hit the US mainland, China may need to cross several island chokepoints to enforce a Taiwan blockade. If China were to outflank and blockade Taiwan, PLA-N warships would have to pass through the Nansei/Ryukyu Islands and Bashi Channel.

The Nansei/Ryukyu Islands circled on a Google-generated map. Source: Google

However, these naval maneuvers could leave PLA-N warships vulnerable while transiting these maritime chokepoints. US and Japanese forces can detect, track and engage PLA-N forces from Japan, and US forces stationed in Guam can check PLA-N maneuvers south of Taiwan.

In addition, James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara write in a 2010 article for the think tank Jamestown Foundation that China may seek to wrest control of the Nansei/Ryukyu Islands in an island-hopping operation reminiscent of World War II in the Pacific.

Holmes and Yoshihara note that if China had the Nansei/Rykyu Islands under its control, then it would be able to deploy anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) platforms on the occupied islands and thus enable the PLA to mount a Defense in Depth (DiD) against US and Japanese forces.

From Japan’s perspective, Scott writes that Japan aims to build an “island wall” in the Nansei/Ryukyu Islands to check China’s naval maneuvers. Asia Times has previously reported that Japan plans to deploy 1,000 long-range missiles on its fighter jets, warships and launchers based in the Nansei Islands.

Apart from deterring China’s naval maneuvers, these missiles are part of Japan’s plans to acquire counterstrike capabilities aimed at China and North Korea’s extensive missile arsenals.

In addition, Asia Times has previously reported on US plans to build a “missile wall” in the First Island Chain, having developed the Typhon land-based missile launcher capable of firing SM-6 Standard interceptors and Tomahawk cruise missiles and the OpFires hypersonic missile. The US can deploy these missile platforms to Japan if the need arises.

However, counterstrike capabilities may be a fig leaf cover for “pre-emptive strike”, as it makes little sense for Japan to base its strategic deterrent on conventional missiles against nuclear-armed adversaries.

Japan may thus be caught in a conundrum that while it develops offensive capabilities and slowly abandons its post-World War II pacifist orientation, it still relies on the US nuclear umbrella for strategic deterrence.