Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 12 September 2023


Battleship Yonaguni

Photographer: Carl Court/Getty Images  

America is making a big bet on some little islands in the Western Pacific. Whether the US and Japan can win, or preferably prevent, a conflict with China may hinge on how effectively they use a few specks of land in a vast oceanic theater. A recent visit to Japan’s Ryukyu Islands left me encouraged by what the two countries are doing to turn the region’s geography to their advantage — and sobered by how much must still be done.

America’s basic problem in the Pacific is space. In a potential war over Taiwan, Chinese forces could operate from dozens of bases within the country’s mainland. US airpower is dependent on a few large bases in places like Guam and Okinawa, plus whatever aircraft carriers the Pentagon risks by sailing them within range of Beijing’s ship-killing missiles.

America’s combat power is thus exposed to a Chinese knockout blow. Finding more places from which to operate is crucial to staying in the fight — and flipping the problems that geography creates against Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Projecting power across large, contested bodies of water is no easy thing in an age of precision-guided weapons. If Washington and its allies can turn the Western Pacific into a series of strongpoints, studded with missiles and airbases and patrolled by attack submarines, they can make their military posture more resilient — and make the area a lethal trap for Chinese forces.

This is why the US recently negotiated access to additional bases in the Philippines. And it’s where Japan’s Ryukyu Islands come into play.

The Pentagon has long used Okinawa, in the center of the long Ryukyu archipelago, as its military hub in the Western Pacific. Yet the smaller, southernmost Ryukyu Islands — especially Miyakojima, Ishigaki and Yonaguni — loom ever larger in US and Japanese defense strategy.

Japan’s Tiny Fortresses

Preparing for a potential war with China, the US will want to weaponize small islands in the Ryukyu chain

Tiny Yonaguni is located just a few dozen miles from Taiwan. Miyakojima and its outlying islets, with their roughly 50,000 inhabitants, are essentially equidistant from Okinawa, Taiwan and the disputed Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan but claimed by China.

Japan’s military is grappling with a high tempo of Chinese military flights and naval patrols in the area: Just days before I arrived, a flotilla of Chinese and Russian ships sailed through the strait between Miyakojima and Okinawa. And if these islands are already seeing strategic competition, they will be critical to a successful defense if conflict comes.

As the risk of Chinese aggression rises, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are getting serious about making these outermost islands strategic assets. Tokyo is placing radar stations, air-defense systems and anti-ship missiles in the southern Ryukyus, while reorganizing some ground forces into rapid-deployment units for use in the area. As part of a dramatic, five-year defense buildup, Japan will also build new facilities and pre-position military equipment there.

The US, meanwhile, is forming a Marine littoral regiment based in Okinawa that could deploy to the southern Ryukyus in a crisis, using shore-based missiles to target Chinese ships. The Marines and Air Force are training pilots to fly combat missions from smaller, more austere bases like the airstrips on these islands.

As these plans mature, America and Japan will increasingly be able to withstand — and mete out — more punishment. The question, as with every important issue in US defense policy, is whether that will happen anytime soon.

The Self-Defense Forces’ footprint is growing but still quite small — probably sufficient to be targeted by Chinese forces, but not to inflict much damage on them. On Shimojishima (part of the Miyako Islands group), the best infrastructure — a 3,000-meter runway — is a commercial airfield mostly off-limits to the military. For the US, it’s not clear whether the Marines have the amphibious ships and logistical support needed to keep them supplied and fighting from far-flung locations.

What Washington and Tokyo need is a chain of islands bristling with hundreds of anti-ship missiles and other deadly weapons. What they have is something more skeletal and aspirational.


Part of the reason is politics. The inhabitants of Yonaguni and Ishigaki are relatively well disposed to the SDF presence, US and Japanese officials believe, because they have had unpleasant encounters with China’s maritime militia. On Miyakojima, however, Japan’s military presence — to say nothing of America’s — is viewed with greater suspicion. History matters here: In World War II, the Allies bombarded Miyakojima, because it was the site of Japanese military airstrips and kamikaze operations.

There’s also a potential mismatch in US and Japanese expectations for how to use the southern Ryukyus in a fight. Washington needs the islands as bases for the firepower that would take out Chinese ships and planes assaulting Taiwan. Japanese officials are still grappling with the challenges of defending their entire archipelago airspace and waters if conflict erupts.

The US and Japan have the right idea regarding the southern Ryukyus: Without them, there just aren’t enough places from which to fight. Now they have to turn a good idea into something that can withstand the test of conflict — and do so fast enough to keep that conflict from breaking out.

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