Defense officials tout new base on Okinawan island, but residents worry

Japanese officials are touting a new Ground Self-Defense Force base on Ishigaki Island as a crucial final component in the country’s line of defense against China. But residents of the island, which lies in remote waters of Okinawa Prefecture in the country’s far south, are concerned the camp ― and a new type of missile ― will only make their home a target for attack.

The Ishigaki base is part of a belated effort by the GSDF to create a bulwark across an island chain that stretches more than 1,000 kilometers from Japan’s mainland.

During the Cold War, the GSDF focused its attentions on northern Japan in preparation for a possible invasion by the Soviet Union. The southwestern islands, including Ishigaki, were considered a "blank zone" in security terms. But in recent years, the defense ministry has shifted its focus southward in response to China's maritime activity and military buildup.

In 2016, the GSDF opened a camp on Yonaguni Island. Three years later, it opened two more on Miyako and Amami-Oshima islands. With Okinawa Island already hosting several bases, defense officials viewed Ishigaki as "the final piece of the puzzle."

JGSDF Camp Ishigaki

There are about 570 personnel and 200 military vehicles stationed at the new base, which opened on March 16. It also houses an arsenal that includes anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles.

Ishigaki and the other southwestern islands are a crucial part not only of Japan’s defense policy, but Washington’s as well, with some in the US saying they will become part of the battlefield if there is a conflict over Taiwan. This is because the islands overlap with the "First Island Chain", a defensive line China established to guard against the US and its allies. Officials in Washington believe the Ishigaki base is crucial to breaking up this structure and repelling an invasion of Taiwan by Chinese forces.

Residents worried

Authorities on Ishigaki have welcomed the base. They say cooperating on defense issues will encourage the national government to reciprocate with support for regional development efforts and measures to combat population decline.

Residents of Ishigaki Island protest against the GSDF base.

But this reasoning has done little to allay the concerns of residents. They worry that changes to the national security policy will make their home a target. At the end of last year, the administration of Prime Minister Kishida Fumio announced it would give Japan the authority to launch "counterstrikes" when necessary. To enable these capabilities, the defense ministry decided to extend the range of domestically produced "Type 12" surface-to-ship missiles from 200 kilometers to about 1,000. But China could view this as a provocation.

The Type 12 missile

The government has not yet decided where it will deploy the upgraded Type 12 missiles. But since Ishigaki already hosts the older models, many on the island consider it a foregone conclusion the missiles will end up in their midst.

The memory of the devastating battle that left Okinawa in ruins at the end of World War Two lingers for many older residents of Ishigaki. For them, the government’s proclamations about enhancing regional defense appear to be doing the opposite. Instead, they hope for more efforts in diplomacy to ease tensions and prevent conflict.

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