Japan Self Defense Forces have begun constructing a new air base on Mage, an uninhabited island in Kagoshima Prefecture which is also known as Mageshima.
The base is intended to house US fighter jets relocated from Iwoto Island, also known as Iwo Jima. Located on the eastern fringe of the South China Sea, Mage offers a better location for a military base, according to Japanese defense officials.
“Given the most severe and complicated security environment of the postwar era, the government will build this facility and begin its operation at an early date,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said in a press conference, according to Japan Times.
The decision to build a base on the island was taken as a reaction to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, officials explained.
A site of ambitious failures
Since the 14th Century, Mage has been populated on occasion by fishermen. A permanent agricultural colony was established there after WWII. However, between the 1960s and 80s all the residents left due to difficult conditions on the island.
Remaining uninhabited, Mage became a focal point of several ambitious commercial projects. Plans to build resorts, oil storage facilities, a nuclear waste storage and a spaceport have all been floated since the 1970s, but none of them have materialized.
In 2009 a local company began constructing a runway on the island with plans to lease it as a training ground for the US Navy. However, the project resulted in a large scandal involving alleged tax fraud and other illegal activities.
According to environmental reports, illegal logging operations and other commercial activity devastated the island’s ecosystems and led to extinction of numerous animal species for which Mage remained the only habitable area.
The plans to turn it into a permanent base were first floated in 2011 and received a further boost during 2018. In December 2019, the island was bought by the Japanese government.
Mage has become a part of a larger move to increase the presence of both the US armed forces and Japan’s Self Defense Force in the region.
China considers a major part of the South China Sea to be its own territory, a view which clashes with international law and claims by other surrounding countries, including Japan.
China’s ambitious island construction projects, incursions into other countries’ airspaces and other military activity have led to a sharp rise of tensions in the region.
Japan often cites China’s actions as a pretext for its own militarization, one aspect of a new arms race within the region.