Publication of working papers for the SPF project “Shaping the Pragmatic and Effective Strategy Toward China”

 IINA (International Information Network Analysis) will upload the working papers written by U.S. and Japanese project members focusing on shaping a pragmatic and effective strategy toward China. We hope that this series will help IINA readers understand how experts from the U.S. and Japan see China and the U.S.-Japan joint efforts, which have the potential to determine the future world order.

The core idea of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy proposed by Japan and the United States is to connect Asia and its growing economy to Africa and its huge future potential through the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It aims to open a new frontier by achieving continuous growth in both Africa and Asia. To achieve this, the two countries will focus on a) The promotion and establishment of fundamental values such as rule of law, freedom of navigation, etc., b) The pursuit of economic prosperity (improvement of connectivity, etc.), and c) The commitment for peace and stability (capacity building on maritime law enforcement, etc.)[2]. At the same time, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) refers to an economic zone spanning Asia, Europe, and Africa that connects the potential of economies in these areas[3]. The geographic areas where FOIP and BRI overlap provide opportunities for the two sides to cooperate or contest each other. While these areas do contain unstable sub-regions, the existence or lack of peace and stability in these places will predict the further development and growth the two plans aim to achieve. It is imperative that Japan and the United States comprehend the strategic environment within the BRI and FOIP zones. As Japan is located next to the East China Sea, an important area where both the FOIP and BRI overlap, Japan in particular needs to explore what it can do to bring stability to the East China Sea based on an accurate strategic understanding.

1.The geostrategy of FOIP vs. BRI

(1) The strategic significance of the East China Sea and Japan’s Southwestern Area

The question of who controls the archipelago starting at Japan’s Southwestern Area through Taiwan and the Philippines (also known as the First Island Chain) has significant implications to the strategic balance of the wider Indo-Pacific area. Japan will be greatly affected by who is the present power in the region, especially after observing the situation at the end of WWII. Following the Battle of Leyte Gulf, where Japanese naval and air forces suffered heavy losses, U.S. forces commanded by General MacArthur landed on the Philippines in October 1944, and invaded Okinawa in April 1945. At this point, Japan’s main islands were completely surrounded by enemy forces, causing a total shut down of Japan’s sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that resulted in desperate economic conditions. The Japanese Army and Navy had no choice but to rely on Kamikaze attacks, an inhumane suicidal tactic.

While it may not be obvious, once Japan’s Southwestern Area falls to hostile control, Japan will be in a situation similar to the end of WWII. Moreover, the strategic balance will be unrecognizable for the U.S., its allies, and partners. As for the dominant power, it will have unlimited access to the Western Pacific, while also being capable of denying weaker powers access to the East China Sea, and even Japan’s Southwestern Area. This is also an issue of importance for Taiwan and the Philippines — if one or both of them falls under the influence of China, the strategic balance of the South China Sea will drastically change. They are the gate keepers to the southern entrance of the South China Sea. It will be a serious problem if we lose free and safe access to one of the most important SLOCs for the global economy, one that is also a lifeline for Japan.

(2) The strategic environment beyond the South China Sea

There are many overlapping areas between China’s BRI and the FOIP plan proposed by Japan and the U.S. There may be areas where the two sides could cooperate, but they may have conflicting interests in others. A key question for Japan and the U.S. is how the two countries will maneuver in areas where their interests conflict with those of China. This question’s importance stems from the fact that there are a number of unstable sub-regions, and any local conflict in such sub-regions can easily escalate to a clash between the two sides. At the beginning of this century, the U.S. Department of Defense described the region as an “arc of instability[4].” After Kabul fell to the Taliban in August this year, the area surrounding Afghanistan has begun to pose a serious concern as a source of instability.

There are different characteristics, both geopolitical and geo-economic, in the sub-regions under the FOIP reaching from the Korean Peninsula through the East and South China Seas, the Indian Ocean, and South and Central Asia to the East coast of Africa. There are also different influential actors depending on the strategic environment in the respective sub-regions[5]. While China faces major economic and military powers such as the U.S., Japan, and South Korea in the East China Sea, it also faces far smaller actors, such as the individual member states of ASEAN. In the South China Sea, it is important to build up regional countries’ capacity and to involve outside partners, such as U.K. and France, to pursue the rule of law such as freedom of navigation. Within the Indian Ocean, India and Australia can be expected to exert a positive influence, in addition to permanent presence of the U.S. Navy. Failing and failed states that are hot-beds for terrorism span from South and Central Asia to Africa and are a serious threat to the region.

Geostrategy of FOIP against BRIGeostrategy of FOIP against BRI[6]

2.Japan’s China Policy and Defense Posture in Its Southwestern Area

The East China Sea’s strategic significance is an important factor for Japan when it considers how it should respond to China with the United States. At the same time, the situation in the East China Sea is extremely tense since relations between Japan and China significantly deteriorated in 2012, when the government of Japan gained ownership of all islands of the Senkakus. Ever since, Chinese government ships have continued to enter coastal zones around the islands, disrupting Japan’s ability to show its administrative control of the islands. In the last six months, Chinese Coast Guard ships entered the contiguous zone almost every day, and they have entered territorial waters an average of four days per month with 11 ships[7].

(1) Japan’s China Policy

Under such tense conditions, the Abe administration’s policy toward China seems to have been split between engagement and opposition. It aimed to lower tensions and look for points of bilateral cooperation, while never compromising in areas such as national security and human rights. This policy aimed to make the Japanese position clear and show China that Japan will not back down. Abe reportedly said this exact line to his aids just before a summit meeting held in December 2012[8]. While the two leaders sought to build Japan-China relations appropriate for a new era, and to have President Xi Jinping visit Japan next spring, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did request that China work towards a positive solution on several serious issues:

a) Advancement of maritime security initiatives, including action under the Maritime and Aerial Communication Mechanism between defense authorities, the Japan-China Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) Agreement, and the promotion of exchanges between defense and maritime law enforcement agencies.
b) China’s response to the East China Sea issue, including waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands.
c) That all parties exercise self-restraint regarding the situation in Hong Kong along with the swift resolution of the situation, and that China be transparent in its explanation of violations of human rights in Xinjiang[9].

(2) Improved Defense Posture in the Southwestern Area

Following the previous discussion of strategic significance, the next question is how Japan can maintain aerial and maritime superiority to defend the islands in Japan’s Southwestern Area. The Japan Self-Defense Force’s (SDF) recent policy to improve defense posture may suggest it is headed in the right direction in answering this question.

It was only a decade ago when the government of Japan began to adopt policies that enhance defense capabilities in the area. According to Defense of Japan published by the Ministry of Defense in 2011, the SDF major components in the area, such as the GSDF 15th Brigade, MSDF Fleet Air Wing 5, and ASDF Southwestern Composite Air Division, are all located on the main island of Okinawa. Outside of the main island, only ASDF radar sites used to be deployed on three other islands, namely Okinoerabu-jima, Kume-jima and Miyako-jima[10]. The Southwestern islands are located in a vast area 1,200 km to the south of Kyushu and to the east of Taiwan. This area is roughly as large as Japan’s main island Honshu, home to 34 of the country’s 47 prefectures. For disaster relief operations after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, the SDF deployed 107,000 service members to the affected areas in three prefectures namely Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. Compared to this, the forces in the Southwestern Area are extremely weak. Since the start of the Abe administration in 2012, the government has been working hard to strengthen the force structure and modernize the SDF’s equipment to better defend the Southwestern Area.

[Modernization of equipment for the defense of islands and surrounding waters]

One of the most prioritized policies under the National Defense Program Guidelines adopted in 2018 is the modernization of equipment for the defense of islands and surrounding waters. Examples include air-to-ship/land standoff missiles that can be launched safely from fighters flying beyond the range of hostile anti-air missiles. This also includes improvements of the GSDF’s surface-to-ship missiles, research and development programs for high-speed gliding munitions, and hypersonic cruise missiles. As for the standoff missiles equipped on fighters, the SDF aims to introduce several types of missiles from abroad, whose range varies from 300 km to over 800 km. The revision of the procurement plan for the F-35 fighter in 2018 further increased the total number of acquired aircraft from 42 to 147. A program to onboard up to 42 F-35Bs onto Izumo class ships will provide the SDF air defense the capability to defend the archipelago in a flexible manner.

While long-range missile programs have often been discussed in the context of the ability to strike targets within hostile territories, such long-range fire power has tremendous utility for defending large areas. Considering the distance between major islands in the Southwestern Area averages between 150 to 200 km, anti-ship missiles with a range of 300 km could cover an island’s neighboring straits. Fighters flying over Okinawa with missiles effective up to 800 km, could successfully cover all of the islands from Tanegashima to Yonaguni-jima with extreme accuracy. Long-range missiles, when aimed horizontally, will help smaller units to protect a large area when defending the Southwestern Area.

[Enhanced SDF deployment posture in remote islands]

In addition to the modernization of the SDF’s equipment, the recently enhanced SDF deployment to the region looks promising. The first move was in 2016, with the activation of a GSDF coastal surveillance unit on Yonaguni-jima, followed by newly activated units on Amami-Oshima and Miyako-jima in 2019. This year, a plan to activate new units on Ishigaki-jima was announced[11]. The respective units deployed to those islands are composed of 500-700 personnel and organized into a mixture of infantry-heavy security units, surface-to-air missile units, surface-to-ship missile units and supporting elements[12].

This posture is significant since the surface-to-air and surface-to-ship missiles deployed on the three islands, along with such capabilities already deployed on Okinawa, constitute a posture where anti-air and anti-ship missiles are located in key positions with no more than 150-300 km between the islands. For example, units deployed on Miyako-jima and Ishigaki-jima could provide protection from hostile ships approaching the perimeter of a hundred-plus kilometer radius and aircraft within several tens of kilometer from those islands. This posture will establish umbrellas of local anti-air and anti-ship fire power that reinforce the total capabilities to gain air and maritime superiority along with SDF vessels and aircraft operating in the surrounding air and sea areas. Land components in the past used to be regarded as the last line of defense against aggression that passed through Japan’s maritime and air defenses. In terms of defense in the Southwestern Area, the GSDF seems to have taken up a new posture that operates as a forward guard for joint efforts to achieve air and maritime superiority.

3.U.S. Posture and the Role of U.S. and Japanese Land Components

(1) Orientation towards the Pacific by U.S. Army and Marines

In recent years, the U.S. Army and Marines have shown increasing interest in East Asia. Last July, the U.S. Army deployed an air defense unit equipped with surface-to-air Patriot anti-ballistic missile systems to Amami-Oshima, and conducted bilateral exercises with the GSDF air defense unit equipped with Chu-SAM as part of the “Orient Shield” bilateral field training exercise that is annually conducted by the GSDF and U.S. Army. While the GSDF moved its units from Camp Aonogahara in Hyogo Prefecture, the U.S. Army units were deployed from Okinawa[13]. Separate from the air defense units, an artillery unit of U.S. Army equipped with HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) deployed from the U.S. mainland to Yausebetsu in Hokkaido, and conducted a live fire exercise with a GSDF MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System) unit. HIMARS, while capable of launching similar munition as the MLRS, is lighter than the MLRS with a smaller equipment load and far more suited to rapid deployment to remote islands due to its anti-ship capability. The U.S. Army has recently shown interest in operations on islands in the Western Pacific and anti-ship capabilities from coastal areas. The recent developments of the Army’s deployment of Patriots to Amami-Oshima and HIMARS to Hokkaido demonstrates such interest.

There are a number of signals that point towards an increased deployment of Marines in and around Japan. Last April, Marines in Okinawa invited news reporters to an exercise during which they communicated in Japanese[14]. This significant shift in operational concept by the U.S. Marines, further discussed below, suggests that the Marines are required to operate experimentally in the archipelago in Japan’s Southwestern Area to the Philippines. This has increased their scope of operation to include Japan’s Southwestern Area.

(2) Roles of land components operating on islands under naval strategy

The U.S. Marines in April this year released the “Force Design 2030 Annual Update,” a plan aiming to drastically reorganize the forward deployed forces, namely the Third Marine Expeditionary Force (IIIMEF)[15]. This is in response to changing naval operational concepts aimed at achieving maritime superiority in contested areas. There, marines will implement an operational concept titled Expeditionary Advanced Base Operation (EABO) with the following two key points:

First, it is unreasonable to think that marines just off the Chinese coast would conduct large amphibious assault operations after achieving overwhelming air and maritime superiority. It is more realistic to think that employing various naval operations with the support of the U.S. Marines to grind down hostile capabilities in areas contested with the Chinese Navy and Air Force would be more effective. In other words, U.S. Marines are departing from the concept of large-scale amphibious assault landing operations and moving towards expanding their ability to conduct more wide-spread operations in an agile manner.

Second, marines will be reorganized to meet the requirements stated above. Three marine regiments originally organized as either infantry or artillery single arm units will be reorganized to Marine Littoral Regiments that include multi arms units. Each MLR, centering on (a) a Littoral Combat Team (LST) with an infantry battalion and long-range anti-ship missile artillery battery, will have (b) a Littoral Anti-Air Battalion in charge of air defense, air surveillance and early warning, air traffic control, forward rearming and refueling, and (c) a Combat Logistic Battalion[16]. Flexible multi-mission capabilities of infantry, anti-ship strike capabilities, and air defense capabilities can be rapidly deployed and provide protection for forward operating bases. In addition, once an MLR is deployed to an airfield, it can also control departing and arriving air traffic while refueling them. The “Force Design 2030: Annual Update” describes such force structure as capable “to fight at sea, from the sea, and from the land to the sea; operate and persist within range of adversary long-range fires[17].” According to Marine Corps Headquarters, the 3rd Marine Regiment (infantry) is reorganized into MLRs, and it is scheduled for initial operational availability by 2022. That regiment will continue work as an example for future units. Following this, two other regiments under IIIMEF will be reorganized[18].

(3) Shared roles for land components of the two militaries

The operational and organizational concepts of MLR stated above are similar to those of the GSDF, such as the land component’s contribution to air and maritime forces in operations to achieve air and maritime superiority, and organization with anti-ship and anti-air elements. The difference is that while the U.S. Marine Corps plans to rapidly deploy such capabilities, GSDF units are designed to be pre-deployed on islands such as Miyako-jima and Ishigaki-jima during peacetime and work as forward elements to cover the deployment of reinforcing units. The first reinforcement will be made up of units such as an amphibious brigade, and airborne brigade. Maneuvering divisions and brigades will act as follow-on forces that have higher mobility and lighter equipment. During such deployment, pre-deployed units may provide anti-air and anti-ship cover for ships and aircraft transporting reinforcements.

If the Southwestern Area becomes the focal point in crisis, MLRs can help Japan fill in the gaps of deployed SDF units or extend SDF posture to the Philippines to provide their naval and air forces with a longer left flank of cover. With U.S. Army posture ready to bring HIMARS by air to support, deterrence posture will become more reliable so that unnecessary conflicts can be avoided.


Any conflict with China over air and maritime superiority in the Southwestern Area will cause unacceptable and fatal damage that neither Japan and the U.S. nor China can afford. To avoid this, one of the key elements may be a state of stalemate where neither side can overwhelm the other and achieve a decisive victory to force its own will on to the other. What steps Japan can and should take to help create this is to establish a defense posture that demonstrates its firm determination to protect its territories by deploying SDF elements on major islands. In the meantime, their deterrent posture will become more reliable if uncertainty increases for the other side due to U.S. policies that show willingness to advance navy and marine forces to possible hot spots around the Southwestern Area along with the possibility of army reinforcements.

This piece has discussed SDF buildup programs and changing U.S. operational concepts that endorse and accelerate the two countries’ efforts towards a stalemate posture as stated above. In this context, while the SDF’s long-range fire power programs cover a vast swathe of the Southwestern Area, it is extremely important to realize that Japan’s intelligence capabilities may become an Achilles’ heel. Long-range weapons may not be effective without intelligence capabilities for continuous surveillance over a vast area to accumulate information and to detect any signs of possible danger, and for precisely locating and tracking targets when necessary. Following up on previous defensive adaptations is essential to further establishing Japan’s control of maritime areas.

Richard Samuels, an MIT professor specializing in Japanese affairs, in his recent book on the history of Japan’s intelligence community, suggests that Japan may have three options for its future defense and intelligence, (a) “the status quo---Japan’s effective and low-cost military alliance with the United States,” (b) “autonomous defense,” and (c) “bandwagoning with China[19].” Samuels argues that every option will pose a significant cost to Japan. Even to continue the status quo will cost it to an extent as the strategic environment drastically changes. Japan may have to invest only in complementary areas where Japan’s intelligence community has relative competence to that of the U.S. To avoid a situation where long-range weapons do not make sense due to a lack of intelligence capabilities, Japan must be ready to pay the price.



  1. 1 A part of the arguments in this essay is based on and updated from the author’s recent works listed below. The former focuses on changes in operational concept of the U.S. Navy and Marines while the latter tries to explain the implications of Japan’s defense posture toward Taiwan and implications of Taiwan-Strait contingencies for Japan’s security.
    山口昇「米海兵隊の作戦構想転換と日本の南西地域防衛」(2021/8/2)、笹川平和財団 国際情報ネットワーク分析IINA。
    ; Noboru Yamaguchi, “Japan’s New Security Posture and Its Implications for Taiwan,” Asan Forum (April – June 2021, Vol 9, No. 2) September 24, 2021.
  2. 2 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Japan-U.S. Working Lunch and Summit meeting,” November 6, 2017.
  3. 3 「一帯一路とは中国と欧州つなぐ広域経済圏構想」日経新聞2021年2月7日。 (Japanese)
  4. 4 US DoD, Quadrennial Defense Review Report 2001, p. 4.
  5. 5 山口昇「提言1-3 日本はインド太平洋地域内の各地域の特性に応じた地域戦略を構築すべきだ」笹川平和財団安全保障研究グループ『積極的平和主義実現のための提言II』(2020年2月)、6-11頁。(Japanese)
  6. 6 “Figure 3. The First and Second Island Chains” appeared in DoD‘s Annual Report to the Congress “Military power of the people’s republic of China 2008.” The author added the strategic significance of sub-regions.
  7. 7 海上保安庁「尖閣諸島周辺海域における中国海警局に所属する船舶等の動向と我が国の対処」(Japanese)
  8. 8 ANN News 「日中首脳会談始まる”l尖閣””香港”で対応要請へ(19/12/23)(Japanese)
  9. 9 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Japan-China Working Lunch and Summit meeting,” December 23, 2019.
  10. 10 Ministry of Defense of Japan, Nihon no Bouei 2011 (Japanese version of Defense of Japan 2011), “Location of Principal SDF Units (As of March 31, 2011).
  11. 11 「石垣島陸自配備 隊庁舎建設、新年度に着手 宿舎の用地取得も進む」『八重山日報』2021年3月17日。(Japanese)
  12. 12 稲葉義泰「なぜ島に駐屯地を作るの? 奄美、宮古、石垣…進む陸自の南西諸島配備 その現状と意義」『乗りものニュース』2019年4月10日。(Japanese)
  13. 13 「日米、中露にらみ新戦術:陸自と最大規模の共同訓練」『産経新聞』2021年6月30日。
  14. 14 「米海兵隊、日本語で初訓練」『共同通信』2021年7月5日。
  15. 15 U.S. Marine Corps Headquarters, “Force Design 2030 Annual Update (April 2021).”
  16. 16 Marine Corps Headquarters, “Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR),” August 2, 2021.
  17. 17 Marine Corps Headquarters, “Force Design 2030 (March 2020).”
  18. 18 Marine Corps Headquarters, “Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR),” August 2, 2021.
  19. 19 Richard L. Samuels, Special Duty: A History of the Japanese Intelligence Community, Cornell University Press (Ithaca and London, 2019), 5807-5883/9769.