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A Japan Ground Self-Defense Force soldier works security alongside U.S. Marines during a beach raid exercise in Kin, Okinawa, Feb. 9, 2020.

A Japan Ground Self-Defense Force soldier works security alongside U.S. Marines during a beach raid exercise in Kin, Okinawa, Feb. 9, 2020. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa – A reported plan by the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force to increase its presence on Okinawa and add weight to its leadership there is a prudent decision, according to a pair of Japanese security experts.

The Self-Defense Force plans to add another infantry regiment to the one already based at Camp Naha and put a general in charge, one step up from the current major general commanding there, according to a report Saturday by Kyodo News, which cited an unnamed government source.

A spokesman for the Ground Self-Defense Force declined comment on the Kyodo report, except to say no concrete plans are set and the force is considering “many options to strengthen the defense capabilities in the Nansei region.” The Nansei Islands, also called the Ryukyu Islands, is the chain that includes Okinawa and extends southwestward from the Japanese main islands to Taiwan.

The reported move would likely add about 900 personnel, the size of a typical regiment, to the 2,500 15th Brigade troops already stationed there, Toshiyuki Shikata, a former lieutenant general in the Ground Self-Defense Force, told Stars and Stripes by phone Tuesday.

Increasing troop strength on Okinawa would prepare the Ground Self-Defense Force for a “contingency involving Taiwan” and an increasingly assertive China, according to Kyodo.

Too few troops are positioned in the island chain, Shikata said. Waiting for a conflict to move troops from the main islands to Okinawa would be too late, he added.

“If something happens in Taiwan, Japan has to do something,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that Japan will treat China as an enemy, but geographically the Taiwan Strait is very important for Japan.”

Tokyo’s plan would effectively upgrade the brigade to division size and put its leader on par with the commander of the III Marine Expeditionary Force, currently Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James Bierman Jr., Kyodo said.

The changes will be included in defense planning documents for 2023, with preparations scheduled to begin the following year, Okinawa Times reported Sunday, citing unnamed officials.

Junjiro Shida, an associate professor of international politics at Meio University on Okinawa, agreed with Shikata.

“It is necessary to strengthen the forces of Japan independently,” he told Stars and Stripes by phone Tuesday. “We are at risk of a Taiwan issue and if it happens, the most affected area will be Okinawa and the Nansei Islands.”

Takashi Kishimoto, a deputy secretary-general of the Okinawa Peace Activity Center, disagreed.

“With this move, the government is assuming that Okinawa will be a battlefield again,” he told Stars and Stripes by phone Tuesday. “If a U.S.-China war regarding Taiwan starts, we will be involved.”

Nobody has the will to stop “this military expansion,” according to Kishimoto.

“We don’t want the government to expand the forces, we want them to solve problems peacefully through diplomacy,” he said.

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Keishi Koja is an Okinawa-based reporter/translator who joined Stars and Stripes in August 2022. He studied International Communication at the University of Okinawa and previously worked in education.
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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.

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