Island bought by Japan for $146M could be the US military’s next unsinkable aircraft carrier

The Japanese government has completed a $146million takeover of an uninhabited, three square mile island on the edge of the East China Sea which may one day be used as an unsinkable aircraft carrier for the US Navy in the event of a war in Asia.

Mageshima, part of the Osumi Islands, played an important part in the Japanese military’s defense of Okinawa in the latter stages of World War II, and the island could now become a vital battleground in staving off mounting threats from Beijing.

The government first reached a deal with the investment firm Taston Airport in January, but that deal collapsed in May when a new president took over the Tokyo-based company and demanded more than the 4.5 billion yen ($41.3M) that had previously been agreed upon.

The purchase adheres to an agreement reached between the US and Japan in 2011, in which Japan promised to provide the US military with a remote training site – having scrapped landing practice in Iwoto island, South of Tokyo, following noise pollution complaints from local residents.

Mageshima (above in 2011), part of the Osumi Islands, played an important part in the Japanese military’s defense of Okinawa in the latter stages of World War II, and the island could now become a vital battleground in staving off mounting threats from Beijing

Mageshima (above in 2011), part of the Osumi Islands, played an important part in the Japanese military’s defense of Okinawa in the latter stages of World War II, and the island could now become a vital battleground in staving off mounting threats from Beijing

The purchase adheres to an agreement reached between the US and Japan in 2011, in which Japan promised to provide the US military with a remote training site, having scrapped landing practice in Iwoto island, South of Tokyo, following noise pollution complaints from local residents (pictured: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump shaking hands)

Previously overseen by the Mage Island Development Company, Taston Airport took over ownership of Mageshima in 1995 after a series of blueprints to turn the land into a profitable development site were imagined, adopted, and then abandoned in the post 1945-era.

Such failed pursuits included turning the island into a tourism hotspot named Mage Island Marine Leisure Land, a Self Defense Force radar base (1983), an oil storage site (1984), a nuclear waste storage site (1999), and was even in contention to be used as a landing site for the Japanese ‘Hope’ space shuttle throughout the 1990s.

Eventually, Taston Airport settled on the idea of using the island as a military hub, identifying the Department of Defense as the most likely suitor to either buy or lease the land.

With that prospect in mind, Taston began clearing the island’s dense 441 hectare foliage and built two runways, one measuring 4,200 metres (south-north) and the other 2,400 metres (east-west), in preparation.

The Japanese government has since said the current runways will be paved and used for US Navy and Marine Corps planes to simulate aircraft carrier landings, though a timeframe for when such a project would be completed wasn’t offered.

However, once a series of suitable facilities are constructed, the island could become a permanent base for Japan’s Self Defense Forces as Tokyo looks to aggressively strengthen its position in the East China Sea, amid similar moves made by China in the nearby Senkaku Islands.

Tokyo also has plans to transfer some of the US troops stationed in Okinawa to the island to reduce the burden on local residences allegedly aggrieved by US military presence in the region, the South China Morning Post reported.

Previously overseen by the Mage Island Development Company, Taston Airport took over ownership of Mageshima (above in 2018) in 1995 after a series of blueprints to turn the land into a profitable development site were imagined, adopted, and then abandoned in the post 1945-era

Previously overseen by the Mage Island Development Company, Taston Airport took over ownership of Mageshima (above in 2018) in 1995 after a series of blueprints to turn the land into a profitable development site were imagined, adopted, and then abandoned in the post 1945-era

There are hundreds of uninhabited islands off the coast of Japan, although the vast majority are small and lacking the infrastructure required to support human inhabitants. At least 40 are much larger, including the Diaoyu Islands, located west of Okinawa. They are controlled by Japan, where they are known as the Senkakus, but mainland China and Taiwan have also staked a territorial claim to them, resulting in a long-standing dispute over their ownership

There are hundreds of uninhabited islands off the coast of Japan, although the vast majority are small and lacking the infrastructure required to support human inhabitants. At least 40 are much larger, including the Diaoyu Islands, located west of Okinawa. They are controlled by Japan, where they are known as the Senkakus, but mainland China and Taiwan have also staked a territorial claim to them, resulting in a long-standing dispute over their ownership

Once a series of suitable facilities are constructed, the island could become a permanent base for Japan’s Self Defense Forces as Tokyo looks to aggressively strengthen its position in the East China Sea, amid similar moves made by China in the nearby Senkaku Islands (Soldiers from Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force take part in a field drill with US Marines during joint military exercises with in Eniwa, Hokkaido)

Once a series of suitable facilities are constructed, the island could become a permanent base for Japan’s Self Defense Forces as Tokyo looks to aggressively strengthen its position in the East China Sea, amid similar moves made by China in the nearby Senkaku Islands (Soldiers from Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force take part in a field drill with US Marines during joint military exercises with in Eniwa, Hokkaido)

The ‘purchase of Mageshima Island is extremely important and serves for strengthening deterrence by the Japan-US alliance as well as Japan’s defense capability,’ Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, announcing the deal.

While Washington has so far refused to comment on the purchase, the $146 million comes as the US military is hearing calls to increase its number of strategic bases in East Asia as the Chinese government continues to grow its missile arsenal.

For the moment, US combat air forces in Japan are limited mainly to just six bases. A study published in August by the University of Sydney warned that with their current limited resources, US forces would be incredibly vulnerable to Chinese missile strikes in the early stages of combat.

The best way to limit such vulnerability is to spread operations and assets among a broader number of bases.

Furthermore, having a permanent land base – such as Mageshima – rather than an aircraft carrier is far more valuable. 

While an island can withstand a great number of munitions, an aircraft carrier could be taken out by as little as one missile or torpedo. Damage to a land base can also be repaired much more quickly than the complex efforts it would take to restore an aircraft carrier.

‘When you target and sink an aircraft carrier it is irreversible,’ Collin Koh, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told CNN.

‘As for an island? At the very least it doesn’t sink…. You can take the time and effort to bring it back to operation again.’

Tokyo also has plans to transfer some of the US troops stationed in Okinawa to the island to reduce the burden on local residences allegedly aggrieved by US military presence in the region (pictured: Anti U.S. Base protesters are seen in front of the gate of JGSDF Camp Soumagahara during a joint training drill of US Marines and Japan's Ground Self Defense Force in Gunma)

Tokyo also has plans to transfer some of the US troops stationed in Okinawa to the island to reduce the burden on local residences allegedly aggrieved by US military presence in the region (pictured: Anti U.S. Base protesters are seen in front of the gate of JGSDF Camp Soumagahara during a joint training drill of US Marines and Japan’s Ground Self Defense Force in Gunma)

For the moment, US combat air forces in Japan are limited mainly to just six bases. A study published in August by the University of Sydney warned that with their current limited resources, US forces would be incredibly vulnerable to Chinese missile strikes in the early stages of combat

For the moment, US combat air forces in Japan are limited mainly to just six bases. A study published in August by the University of Sydney warned that with their current limited resources, US forces would be incredibly vulnerable to Chinese missile strikes in the early stages of combat

Should the Mageshima project go ahead as planned, implementing it as a new base would help to improve US-Japan defense cooperation, which has strained in recent years as a result of locals pressuring Japanese officials to move US military activity offshore and away from populated areas.

Tensions reached fever pitch in February when in a non-binding referendum, Okinawa residents voted overwhelmingly in favour of the US Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station being relocated off the island.

That vote was spurred by incidents of parts falling off US aircraft and landing outside the base, including near schools and numerous flashpoints involving US defense personnel and local residents.

Regardless of the result, the Japanese government moved ahead with plans to relocate Futenma operations elsewhere on Okinawa.

Considering the larger international picture, Japan’s takeover of Mageshima is a wise move to help keep its greatest ally – the US – on side, Koh told CNN.

‘Trump is asking Japan to pay more. This purchase of the island is a move that is part of the whole plan to demonstrate that Japan is willing to shoulder more burden,’ he said.

Despite its close proximity to Tageshima (8.5 miles), nobody actually lives on the island, allowing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe to find balance ‘between its obligation towards the alliance as well as to its domestic constituents’

Despite its close proximity to Tageshima (8.5 miles), nobody actually lives on the island, allowing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe to find balance ‘between its obligation towards the alliance as well as to its domestic constituents’

Despite its close proximity to Tageshima (8.5 miles), nobody actually lives on the island, allowing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe to find balance ‘between its obligation towards the alliance as well as to its domestic constituents’.

And for the US, the move has multiple advantages too. With Japan not only taking the financial burden off of the US taxpayer by solely funding the move, Mageshima itself will also be a far more convenient practise field for US carrier pilots.

Currently, the majority fly out of Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni on the Japanese main island of Honshu and practise ‘touch and go’ landings on Iwo Jima, almost 850 miles away from one another.

Flying to Mageshima would cut the journey down to just 600 miles.

There could, however, be a catch, as in their deal with Taston Airport, the Japanese government has only secured 99 percent ownership of the Island.

The remaining one percent is owned by Nishinoomote city, which has jurisdiction over Mageshima and has expressed a cautious stance to hosting such military training operations and landing practise on the island, which could eventually go on to derail the project.

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