Ukraine war shines spotlight on Nansei chain SDF deployments

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kitadaito Island

Plans to install Self-Defense Force facilities on islands in the Nansei chain have triggered concerns among local residents since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, amid fears the sites would likely be the first targets in the event of an attack.

The Defense Ministry has prioritized the enhancement of defense capabilities in the Kyushu and Okinawa regions with China’s aggressive maritime expansion in mind, but there is an urgent need to address issues regarding the development of emergency facilities and evacuation measures.

“The devastation in Ukraine caused by Russia’s invasion makes me feel uneasy,” said a 55-year-old woman who runs a grocery store on Kitadaito Island, with a population of 550, about 360 kilometers east of Okinawa Island in the Pacific Ocean.

“I agree that the SDF should come here because it’ll help to revitalize the community. But it’s a remote island, so if an emergency happens, there’s no escape,” the woman said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

In December last year, the five-seat Kitadaito village assembly unanimously agreed to invite the SDF to establish facilities on the island, stating that the facilities would strengthen the nation’s defense.

The decision also reflected the hopes of residents that an SDF presence would help in the event of disasters such as typhoons and make it easier to transport patients with severe illnesses on SDF aircraft, which usually happens about ten times a year.

Until recently, areas of the Pacific Ocean near Okinawa have been a “vacuum in terms of vigilance, surveillance and information-gathering activities,” according to Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi,

However, the situation changed drastically when China began operating its Liaoning aircraft carrier in the Pacific.

Courtesy of Air Self-Defense Force
A mobile radar that the Defense Ministry plans to deploy on Kitadaito Island

Installing a radar on Kitadaito, which has a circumference of only 13.5 kilometers, would make it possible to monitor the movements of the Chinese military, increasing the strategic value of the island.

The Defense Ministry is currently mulling the deployment of an Air Self-Defense Force mobile radar unit.

Since May 3, Chinese military jets have conducted takeoff and landing drills on the Liaoning at least 200 times while the aircraft carrier was in the Pacific Ocean near Okinawa, according to the Defense Ministry.

As early as this summer, the ministry will launch a survey to find a suitable location for the deployment of a radar unit on Kitadaito.

“Once the deployment has been decided, we will coordinate with the government regarding the concerns of residents and the development of evacuation sites,” Kitadaito Mayor Mitsumasa Miyagi said.

Measures to strengthen defense capabilities around the Nansei island chain have been advancing.

SDF camps were opened on Yonaguni Island in 2016 and on Miyako Island in 2019, and the defense ministry plans to establish a camp on Ishigaki Island by the end of fiscal 2022.

The construction of a new base is also being planned for Mage Island in Kagoshima Prefecture.

Mitsunori Yamauchi, 71, of a citizens’ group that is against the construction, said: “It’s common practice for bases to be targeted in times of war. The recent invasion of Ukraine has deepened this belief.”

With the deployment of SDF units gathering pace, critics have claimed that measures to protect residents are inadequate.

Under the Civil Protection Law, prefectural governments are required to designate locations in advance for the evacuation and rescue of residents in the event of an armed attack by another country.

There were about 51,994 such facilities nationwide as of April 1, 2021. However, only about 2.5%, or 1,278, are underground facilities that would help to protect lives in the event of missile strikes or other such attacks.

There are only six such underground facilities in Okinawa Prefecture, none of which are on the islands of Kitadaito, Yonaguni and Miyako.

“There have been calls for the development of emergency evacuation facilities for some time, and interest has been growing even more since the outbreak of war in Ukraine,” an Okinawa prefectural government official said.

“We will accelerate efforts to designate evacuation facilities, focusing on underground facilities and sturdy concrete buildings, so that we can foster a sense of security among residents.”