A massive military exercise of potential importance to Taiwan will be staged in December on and around the Ryukyu Islands by the Japan Self-Defense Forces and ships from the US 7th Fleet.
According to a study just released by James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, associate professors of strategy at the US Naval War College, the exercise is aimed at perfecting plans for recapturing the lightly protected islands should they be invaded by China.
“The sad fact is that these islands, which have hitherto been vacation destinations, are now becoming a major military and strategic feature of East Asia,” said Arthur Waldron, a former professor at the US Naval War College.
In an e-mail to colleagues, Waldron said: “The last island in this chain, Yonaguni, is only sixty miles [97km] from the east coast of Taiwan — which is visible, looming up far above the horizon, on a clear day.”
Waldron said the Japanese-held Ryukyu Islands could effectively block any Chinese attempt to attack the east coast of Taiwan from the north.
“In case of conflict, the actual Taiwan Strait itself is likely to be impassable, as each side will have the ability to destroy just about anything that moves,” he wrote.
“This would mean that the only attack direction is from the southeast, which means passing to the east, north of the Philippines, at the point where the strait is widest, before turning to the north and east to gain access to Taiwan’s strategic east coast — with its high stone cliffs and very deep water, good for submarines,” Waldron said.
“My own view is that if the defender had good anti-ship missile capabilities, which according to some reports Taiwan does, this would be a very risky operation,” he said.
In their joint study, Holmes and Yoshihara said the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been making efforts to break out of the first island chain and operate freely in the Western Pacific, “either to threaten the east coast of Taiwan or for some other purpose.”
They add that occupying one or more of the Ryukyus offers one way for the PLAN to do so.
“Once ensconced within the island chain, PLA forces could drive off allied navies, keeping Tokyo and Washington from slamming the nautical gateway shut,” the study said.
One possibility, it said, is that the Chinese might stage a narrowly focused attack on the Ryukyu Islands designed to open a corridor through the archipelago.
A prime candidate is Miyako Island, which abuts both Miyako and Ishigaki straits, it said.
Alternatively, the PLA could try to capture the entire Ryukyu chain from Japan in an effort to bar maritime Asia to US reinforcements while keeping forces already in the theater from entering the Taiwan Strait, the authors said.
PLA forces entrenched along the island chain could supply air and sea cover for PLAN vessels cruising off the east coast of Taiwan.
“Stealthy, missile-armed Type 022 Houbei-class catamarans stationed at the many small harbors in the Ryukyus could hold off allied forces while the PLAN fleet overcame the Taiwan Navy and pounded away at shore targets,” he said.
An obvious step, the study says, would be for Japan to fortify the islands themselves against attack, “sparing Japanese forces the hazards of retaking them from PLA occupiers.”
“Dug-in and armed with anti-ship and anti-air weaponry, Japanese troops could make the Ryukyus exceptionally hard targets to capture for PLA forces operating far from their bases,” it said.