Mention the term “marines” and the images of colonialism, gunboat diplomacy and great-power military interventions at once come to mind. It seems odd, then, that pacifist Japan wants to develop a marine force. Facing China’s growing military power and Beijing’s increasingly assertive regional policy, Japan may have no option but to make marines a critical element of its new defence strategy.

C. Raja Mohan
A leading analyst of India’s foreign policy, Mohan is also an expert on South Asian security, great-power relations in Asia, and arms control.
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Tokyo once had a formidable marine force. The dreaded Imperial Japanese Navy had deployed its Special Naval Landing Forces extensively, before and during World War II. Unlike in the past when marines were integral to Japan’s imperial expansion, Tokyo today sees the marines as vital for securing its territorial claims against Beijing over the disputed islands called Senkaku in Tokyo and Diaoyu in Beijing.

Shinzo Abe, who returned to power in a landslide victory last December, had pledged to boost Japan’s defence expenditure and stand up against Beijing in the intensifying territorial disputes in the East China Sea. He is now taking the first steps to transform Japan’s military posture from passive to active defence.

Abe had ordered a modest but immediate increase in Japan’s defence budget and a longer-term review of Japan’s defence guidelines. An interim report issued last Friday in Tokyo unveiled some of the elements of Japan’s changing defence strategy. Responding to the increasingly muscular tactics of the People’s Liberation Army in the East China Sea, the Japanese defence ministry wants more amphibious capabilities, expanded use of drone surveillance and above all, the creation of a marine force. “To deploy units quickly in response to a situation, it is important... to have an amphibious capability” that is capable of conducting landing operations on remote islands, the report said.

Strike Corps

Tokyo is increasingly concerned that a quick Chinese seizure of a disputed island might leave it with no options at all. Japan’s long-standing ally, the United States, is reluctant to defend Japanese territorial claims against China and unwilling to be drawn into a conflict with Beijing over the small islands in the East China Sea.

Tokyo does not want to confront a fait accompli of the kind that the Philippines is grappling with today. Beijing recently won control over Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Both Manila and Beijing claim ownership of Scarborough Shoal, but it was administered until recently by the Philippines.

Japan’s military dilemma vis a vis China is not unlike that of India in the Himalayas. It is about finding ways to cope with the rapidly altering military balance in favour of China, and Beijing’s ability to alter the territorial status quo with quick and decisive military action. It is to avoid this horrible, Kargil-like possibility of losing control over a small piece of territory that India has decided to raise a strike corps on the Himalayan frontier with China. Delhi hopes that the new military capability will deter China. If deterrence fails, the strike corps will provide options for Delhi to mount a riposte across into Tibet.

For Japan, a marine corps will serve a similar purpose. It will improve Japan’s ability to defend its far-flung island territories and act swiftly in response to any Chinese attempt to gain access to them.

Amphibious Asia

With the waters of Asia increasingly contested, amphibious and expeditionary capabilities are becoming part of the regional military landscape. As Japan debates the creation of a credible marine force, China is well on its way to building up its amphibious capabilities. Way back in the 1950s, China sought to develop a marine corps in the PLA, but the effort got grounded in the following decades. As China turned to the seas over the last decade, Beijing has begun to build powerful marine brigades.

A PLA commander recently told China Daily that “The marine corps represents the essence of our armed forces, and I call our marines the ‘steel of steel’”. India, meanwhile, is nowhere near catching up. The Indian navy’s proposal for raising a marine brigade has long been collecting dust in the ministry of defence.

Unlike Tokyo, which can focus on the maritime contestation with Beijing, Delhi can’t afford to choose between land and sea power in dealing with China’s new military clout. India’s defence strategy must learn to walk on both legs.

This article was originally published in the Indian Express.