The United States will establish a Marine Corps rapid reaction unit in Okinawa Prefecture to defend remote islands in southwestern Japan, as reported by Japanese and US diplomatic sources.
In response to China’s increased military activity in the East China Sea, sources indicated on Wednesday that a Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR) would be built in the prefecture over the next few years.
The United States wants to have Okinawa’s MLRs ready by 2026, arming them with missiles and lighter equipment, the Yomiuri Shimbun daily reported.
The sources also noted that the proposal would likely be discussed at a “two plus two” security meeting between the Japanese and American foreign and defense ministers scheduled to take place on Friday in Washington.
During these talks, the two sides are also expected to agree to include outer space in the scope of Article 5 of their bilateral security agreement. This is because Japan wants to ensure that its satellites don’t get attacked because it needs to use them more and more to keep an eye on other countries’ military movements and get information from them, according to sources.
Article 5 states that Washington will defend the territories under Tokyo’s administration from armed attacks.
Nevertheless, the Okinawan populace may react negatively to the formation of the new unit, given the island prefecture currently hosts almost 70% of the entire area reserved specifically for US military stations in Japan.
The move comes as Tokyo and Washington scramble to bolster their deterrence and response capabilities in southwestern Japan near Taiwan, a self-ruled democratic island that Beijing views as a breakaway province that must be reunified with the mainland by strength if necessary.
China has increased its military might in the South and East China Seas. Its coast guard ships have repeatedly entered Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islets controlled by Tokyo and also claimed by China, where they are known as Diaoyu.
On Tuesday, four Chinese Coast Guard vessels were briefly sighted within Japan’s territorial waters for the first time this year.
The president of the United States, Joe Biden, has said that the defense of the Senkaku falls under Article 5. In addition to the Okinawan unit, US President Joe Biden’s administration is considering creating another MLR on Guam by reforming two existing regiments, according to the sources.
MLRs are made up of between 1,800 and 2,000 troops per unit. Small groups of Marines can be sent to remote islands to defend against enemy attacks and help US or allied warships.
The introduction of the MLRs is part of a major reorganization of the Marine Corps, outlined by its commander, Gen. David Berger, in 2020 in his Force Design 2030 document.
At the time, Berger said that he wanted those units to work closely with the Self-Defense Forces to prevent easy access of the Chinese military to the Pacific.
The plan calls for the Marines to reduce the number of planes and eliminate most of its cannon artillery and heavy armor in favor of smaller “sparse” forces equipped with missiles and drones that can operate in contested regions.
In March, the US Indo-Pacific Command stated that it had established an MLR in Hawaii, the first of its kind for the Marine Corps.
The MLR deployment to Okinawa is unlikely to affect the Marine Corps’ current relocation plan, which calls for redeploying about 9,000 troops to Guam and Hawaii, among other places, and leaving about 10,000 on Okinawa, the sources said.
In three important defense documents that were updated last month, the Japanese government said it would strengthen Self-Defense Forces units on Okinawa to protect remote islands in the southwest. It also called China “the biggest strategic challenge.”