The head of the U.S. Pacific Command has visited for the first time a key Ground Self-Defense Force listening post just 150 km (90 miles) south of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Adm. Harry Harris was accompanied by Self-Defense Forces Chief of Staff, Joint Staff, Adm. Katsutoshi Kawano on the visit Wednesday to the radar station on Okinawa’s tiny Yonaguni Island, the Pacific Command and the Japanese Defense Ministry said in statements.
The visit to Yonaguni was also a first for Kawano.
Japan activated the outpost on Yonaguni, the southernmost of the Ryukyu Islands, last year. That move stoked anger in Beijing, which claims the Senkakus and calls them Diaoyu.
The two nations have for decades been embroiled in a heated territorial dispute over the Senkakus, and China’s routine practice of sending government ships and planes near the islands — aimed at probing Japanese reactions — have stoked fears of an accidental clash.
In a speech to a think tank Wednesday, Harris signaled that the U.S. military could continue to conduct so-called freedom of navigation operations in the disputed South China Sea.
“I have believed and advocated for the necessity for the United States, and our friends and allies and partners, by the way, to continue to exercise our rights on international law,” Harris said. “We should be able to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”
China has moved closer to cementing effective control of the disputed South China Sea in recent years, building in the strategic waterway a series of man-made islands that Harris famously criticized as a “great wall of sand.”
Washington says Beijing has continued to bolster its military capabilities in the waters, through which $5 trillion in trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
Japan, which is not a claimant to the South China Sea, has joined Harris, one of the most vocal opponents of the Chinese land-reclamation projects, in urging China to respect the rule of law.
In his speech Wednesday, Harris also labeled North Korea’s recent military provocations “a recipe for a disaster” and warned against complacency in the face of surging tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
“The dangerous behavior by North Korea is not just a threat to the Korean Peninsula,” Harris said at the event in Tokyo, referring to Pyongyang’s latest test-firing of an advanced new missile Sunday. “It’s a threat to Japan. It’s a threat to China. It’s a threat to Russia.”
On Tuesday, Harris and Kawano also met at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo, where they held talks on U.S.-Japan defense cooperation and the tense security situation in the Asia-Pacific region, including the North Korean threat.
Sebastian Maslow, a research fellow at the Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies at Kobe University, said Harris’ visit and tour of the Yonaguni outpost highlights the U.S. and Japanese commitment to countering China’s increasingly aggressive moves in the East and South China seas.
“For years Japanese strategists and U.S.-Japan alliance managers have tried to counter China’s increasing presence in the East and South China Seas. This visit confirms that commitment,” Maslow said.
It also conveys a “strong signal to Japan and indeed U.S. partners in the region that despite political instability in the U.S., Washington is committed to security guarantees,” he added.