The U.S. Marines view deterring China as their key focus and will strive to make sure a conflict in the Indo-Pacific does not "spill over" to Japan, the military branch's top general Eric Smith said Monday, while warning that Beijing's missile capabilities are "significant" and "real."

The Marine Corps' No. 2 officer, who has been nominated to become the next commandant, also said in an interview in Tokyo that a littoral regiment being formed in Japan for remote island defense is being designed to provide "advanced maritime domain awareness" to allies and partners, in order to better detect events in surrounding waters.

The United States and Japan announced in January that the existing 12th Marine Regiment based in the southern prefecture of Okinawa will be reorganized into the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment by 2025, making it the first MLR to be forward-deployed.


The regiments will possess advanced surveillance capabilities and will be armed with long-range fires. Consisting of about 1,800 to 2,000 personnel per unit, they will also be capable of flexibly deploying small groups of marines to remote islands.

The forming of the regiments comes amid China's increased military assertiveness around far-flung southwestern Japan islets and Taiwan, which has raised the risk of conflict.

Gen. Eric Smith, assistant commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps., speaks during an interview in Tokyo on Sept. 11, 2023. (Kyodo) 

Noting that the U.S. National Defense Strategy calls China "the pacing challenge," Smith said the Marines, as outlined in a major force design initiative released in 2020, are shifting their focus from "the counterterrorism time of Iraq and Afghanistan" to becoming an organization "able to deter a peer competitor."

Following the establishment of the first-ever MLR in Hawaii last year, Smith said the next two years will be utilized to "learn and make minor adjustments" to the regiment in Hawaii, with any necessary changes then being made to the 12th MLR.

"So 2025 is our goal. If it could be faster, it would be wonderful," he said.

A contingency over Taiwan could draw the United States and its close ally Japan into a conflict with China. Japan hosts bases that the U.S. military will likely rely on for executing operations, and Okinawa's Yonaguni Island is located only about 110 kilometers from Taiwan.

Japan was affected by heightened regional tensions last year when then U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, prompting China to stage large-scale military exercises around the self-ruled island that included the firing of ballistic missiles, five of which fell into Japan's exclusive economic zone.

"The missile threat from the PRC (People's Republic of China) is significant and growing," Smith said, adding that the firing of missiles into another country's EEZ is "an example of that growing and real threat that everyone should take seriously."

Taiwan and mainland China have been separately governed since they split in 1949 due to a civil war. China has since endeavored to bring Taiwan back into its fold, with 2027 seen as the year Beijing may be aiming to ready its military to seize the island.

Smith said the Marine Corps' job in the Indo-Pacific is "to prevent a conflict from happening," especially "any conflict that could spill over to Japan because we have a mutual defense treaty with Japan which we take very seriously."

Rather than assuming a specific time that a contingency over Taiwan could occur, the acting commandant also said, "As a service chief, my timeline is always tomorrow morning...I don't try to set 27, 28, 29 or 30. I want to be ready faster than I am today."

Smith, whose nomination to become the next commandant is pending in the U.S. Senate, has taken over as acting commandant after the retirement of David Berger in July left the military branch without a leader for the first time in over a century.

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