Japan activated its first marine unit since World War II on Saturday, trained to counter invaders occupying the disputed Japanese islands along of the edge of the East China Sea, which Tokyo fears are at risk of attack by China. In a ceremony held at a military base in Sasebo on the island of Kyushu, about 1,500 members of the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB) took part in a mock exercise to take back an island from invaders – with some U.S. marines based in Japan also taking part. The move to activate marines, the latest in a series of recent efforts by Japan to bolster its military capabilities, has raised concerns as to its implications for the country’s pacifistic constitution.
Nevertheless, the statements of Japanese officials have only stressed the necessity of this action. “The Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade will show to the international society our firm resolve to defend our islands,” said a senior defense ministry official, speaking to Mainichi during the ceremony. A similar sentiment was expressed by Japanese Vice Defense Minister Tomohiro Yamamoto, who stated that “given the increasingly difficult defense and security situation surrounding Japan, defense of our islands has become a critical mandate.”
The disputed territorial ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea has been an ongoing point of tension between Japan and China. Though Japan has not been the sole provocateur, Chinese Coast Guard vessels have entered the waters on numerous occasions. Noted in a Reuters report as an important trade route, other countries have expressed that the area should remain as international waters. This has led the U.S. and others to conduct “freedom of navigation” exercises, being perceived as an affront by China, especially in addition to the build-up of American forces in the region. As such, it holds that Japan has a few other options than to reassert its position.
The highly complex security challenges that the Northeast Asia region is confronted with is undoubtedly a significant contributor in Japan’s strategic calculations, which have led to increasing militarism. In March, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe affirmed his intention to revise the post-war constitution that, under Article 9, renounces its right to wage war. He states that “the time has finally come to tackle constitutional revision… let’s stipulate the Self-Defense Forces and put an end to a controversy about violation of the constitution.” This has been protested domestically and criticized internationally, with Japan’s World War II hostility still at the forefront of cultural memory for its regional neighbours.
The formation of the 2,100 strong ARDB is especially controversial because amphibious units are able to project offensive military force. Specifically, Japan is closer to establishing a force similar to the U.S. Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) that would enable it to plan and perform operations at sea far from home base. “To have a solid, standing MEU capability requires concerted effort,” according to Grant Newsham, a research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, “if Japan puts its mind to it, within a year or a year and a half, it could have a reasonable capability.” There is no indication that this will occur, but the concern that it might will undoubtedly shape the decision-making of other countries in the region.