Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force will be equipped with three transport vessels in 2024 for its units stationed on remote southwestern islands, as part of efforts to deal with China's military buildup, government sources said Saturday.
It will be the first provision of such vessels to the GSDF, which has been upgrading its response capabilities to cope with new security challenges, such as China's maritime expansion around the Nansei Islands, a chain stretching southwest toward Taiwan.
With the three vessels to be built and deployed, Japan aims to stably supply ammunition, fuel and food to the troops on the remote islands, according to the sources.
One of the vessels will be medium-sized and around 2,000 tons, in comparison with the Maritime Self Defense Force's 8,900-ton Osumi, they said, adding the others will have a displacement of around 400 tons.
The Defense Ministry aims to secure a fiscal 2022 budget for construction of the three ships. On Friday, it told senior ruling party lawmakers of the planned budgetary request.
The decision comes as China continues to send ships to Japan's territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands. The uninhabited islands, also claimed by China which calls them Diaoyu, have been a source of tension between the two countries for some time.
A Chinese law that explicitly allows its coast guard to use weapons against foreign ships it sees as illegally entering its waters also took effect earlier this month, raising worries about contingencies.
Under such circumstances, the sources said the Japanese government is also considering using the three vessels to transport members of the GSDF's Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, a U.S. Marine-like unit set up in 2018 to be in charge of defending and retaking remote islands in the event of an invasion.
Japan and the United States have confirmed that the Senkakus fall under the scope of their decades-old security treaty, meaning Washington will defend Tokyo's interests in the event of an armed attack against the group of small islands in the East China Sea.
The commitment was recently reconfirmed by the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden. However, Japan believes that in order to safeguard the islets it will need to boost its own defense capabilities.
"As we cannot just rely on the United States, it is necessary to have our own resolve to defend (the islets)" a senior Defense Ministry official said.
The provision of the vessels to the GSDF also fits the U.S. strategy to operate agile units in what China calls the "first island chain," stretching from the Japanese archipelago through Taiwan, the Philippines and on to Borneo.
In October last year, Japanese and U.S. forces conducted a joint exercise on an uninhabited island in Kagoshima Prefecture on the assumption that the Senkakus were attacked.
"We need to improve our self-defense capabilities so that our control over the (Senkakus) will not be undermined" by China, a Defense Ministry official said.
Following the deployment of the three vessels, the ministry plans to increase the number to boost the country's defense capabilities around the Nansei Islands.
Japan sees introducing new transport vessels as an urgent matter given that it is difficult for the MSDF's large ones to enter small ports at remote islands.
For the deployment, the GSDF plans to set up a new maritime transport unit in 2024, the sources said. It is expected to work closely with other GSDF units that have been operating on the remote islands since 2016, including those tasked with surface-to-ship missiles and coastal monitoring.