The Maritime Self-Defense Force conducted trilateral military exercises with the Australian Defence Force and the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group on the doorstep of the disputed South China Sea on Tuesday.
The move, the latest show of naval might in the waters, was sure to anger China.
The exercises in the Philippine Sea by the navies, which began Sunday, are seen as a chance to emphasize all three nations’ commitment to the so-called “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” coined by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“I believe strengthening cooperation with the U.S. Navy and Royal Australian Navy is vitally important for Japan, and also contributes to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific in the region,” Capt. Yusuke Sakano, commander of the MSDF’s Escort Division 4, said in a statement. “The experience in this exercise will give us tactical and operational advantages and make our friendships stronger, in addition to our regular joint exercises with both like-minded navies.”
“The opportunity to work alongside the U.S. and Japanese is invaluable,” said Commodore Michael Harris, commander of the Australian Joint Task Group.
“The combined tasking between our navies demonstrates a high degree of interoperability and capability between Australia, the U.S. and Japan,” he added.
During the joint training, the three navies were conducting “integrated maritime operations in an all-domain warfighting environment” that would help their response “to any situation,” the U.S. Navy said.
The exercises also come amid criticism from all three countries over China’s maritime moves in the Western Pacific.
Earlier this month, the defense chiefs from the three nations issued a joint statement following an online trilateral meeting condemning the use of force or coercion “to alter the status quo” in the South and East China seas, while reaffirming the importance of upholding freedom of navigation and overflight.
China claims much of the neighboring South China Sea, though the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims in the waters.
The U.S. military has angered Beijing by regularly holding drills and conducting “freedom of navigation operations” close to and over some of the islands China occupies in the South China Sea, including its man-made islets. The MSDF has also conducted exercises in the waters, much to the chagrin of China.
Washington has lambasted Beijing for its assertiveness in the waterway, including the construction of the man-made islands, some of which are home to military-grade airfields and advanced weaponry. The U.S. fears the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway, that includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year.