Naval vessels from Japan, the U.S., India and the Philippines have sailed together through the disputed South China Sea in a nearly weeklong multilateral drill amid tensions with China over the strategic waterway.
The Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Izumo — Japan’s largest flat-topped helicopter carrier — and the destroyer Murasame joined warships from the other three nations, performing formation exercises, communication drills and passenger transfers from May 2 through Wednesday. The four navies also conducted a leadership exchange aboard the Izumo, the MSDF and U.S. Navy said in separate statements.
The joint military drills come days after the U.S. Navy sent two warships near two Chinese-held man-made islands in the South China Sea’s Spratly island chain, prompting an angry reaction from China.
Beijing has constructed a series of military outposts throughout the waterway, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims in the waters, where the U.S., Chinese, Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies also routinely operate.
China says the facilities it constructed, which includes military-grade airfields and advanced weaponry, are for defensive purposes, but some experts say this is part of a concerted bid to cement de facto control of the waters.
In an editorial this week, China’ state-run Global Times newspaper, a tabloid known for its strident nationalist viewpoint, blasted so-called freedom of navigation operations by U.S. warships near its man-made outposts.
It said that the operations reminded the country of the urgent need to strengthen China’s navy.
“Only if the Chinese navy is sufficiently strong will US warships dare not willfully enter China’s offshore waters to flex their muscles,” it said. “A strong Chinese navy is the guarantee for peace and stability of the South China Sea and even the whole world.”
The multilateral exercises were likely to be interpreted in Beijing as pushback over its moves in the waterway.
Japan has worked to bolster its presence in the South China Sea, deploying the Izumo and Murasame as part of the MSDF’s Indo-Pacific deployment this year, which began April 30 and runs through July 10.
“The opportunity of a multi-sail with U.S. Navy and regional partners was a great experience,” MSDF Rear Adm. Hiroshi Egawa said in a statement released by the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet. “In addition to building mutual understanding and trust, it also served as a way to enhance peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. The ability to do various exercises among four different navies smoothly demonstrated professionalism and high operational skills.”