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Politics

Japan plugs defense gap in southwest islands with new outposts

Two camps to open Tuesday as China grows more active at sea

Members of Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force conduct drills with the U.S. military on the southern island of Tanegashima. (Photo by Masaru Shioyama)

TOKYO -- Japan's Defense Ministry will open new Ground Self-Defense Force stations on two remote southwestern islands Tuesday, looking to boost deterrent capabilities amid the Chinese military buildup and maritime expansion.

The installations will help fill what Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya calls a "vacuum" in the GSDF's presence on the Nansei Islands, a chain stretching southwest toward Taiwan.

The island chain spans about 1,200 km, from the Osumi archipelago off Kagoshima Prefecture -- at the southern tip of Kyushu, the southwestern island of Japan's main four -- to Yonaguni near the Taiwanese coast. They hold some defense installations, such as Air Self-Defense Force radar sites, but only Okinawa Prefecture's main island and Yonaguni have held GSDF garrisons.

Kagoshima's Amami Oshima, about halfway between the mainland part of the prefecture and Okinawa, will host around 550 personnel, including defensive troops, at a main camp and a subcamp. The main facility, charged with first response in emergencies, will feature surface-to-air missiles that could target aircraft or cruise missiles, while the subcamp will include surface-to-ship missiles.

Miyakojima, a part of Okinawa Prefecture between the main island and Yonaguni, will receive a garrison hosting around 380 defensive personnel. As early as 2020, surface-to-air and surface-to-ship missile units will be stationed there, for a total headcount of 700 to 800.

Amami Oshima, part of Japan's Kagoshima Prefecture, will hold one main garrison and one subbase. (Photo by Takuya Imai)

On the island of Ishigaki, between Miyakojima and Yonaguni, workers began clearing a site this month for a future installation set to house 500 to 600 personnel, including defensive and missile units.

Chinese aircraft and vessels have grown increasingly active near the Nansei Islands. In January 2018, a Chinese submarine sailed near the East China Sea's Senkaku Islands, which China claims as the Diaoyu. The Senkakus have been a flashpoint between Tokyo and Beijing.

Stationing troops on the Nansei Islands will help "fill the defense vacuum" there, Iwaya said. The new installations will allow for rapid deployment and "initial response in all manner of emergencies, including natural disasters," he said.

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