The commander of U.S. Forces Japan vowed to help ally Japan deal with incursions by Chinese vessels in the East China Sea, accusing Beijing of a maritime intimidation campaign against countries in the region.
Lt. Gen. Kevin Schneider told a news briefing Wednesday that pressure could soon mount for Japan and its sole military ally, the U.S., with the end of a Chinese seasonal fishing ban in the middle of August. That could see the arrival of a contingent of trawlers, supported by coastguard and People’s Liberation Army naval ships in the waters around the islands, which are located close to Taiwan.
“The United States is 100 percent, absolutely steadfast in its commitment to help the government of Japan with the situation in the Senkakus,” Schneider told reporters in a video briefing. He used the Japanese term for the group of disputed islands that are called Diaoyu in China. “That is 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
This comes as Australia has joined the U.S. in rejecting China’s expansive maritime claims in the resource-rich South China Sea. Beijing has engaged in a campaign to build bases and other outposts on shoals, reefs and rock outcroppings as a way of deepening its claims. China said it’s operating within its rights and accused the U.S. of trying to stir up trouble.
“Beijing through the PLA continues to take aggressive and malign actions in the East China Sea and the South China Sea,” Schneider said. “In the South China Sea, they continue to bully partners, neighbors and others who have legitimate claims to territories, islands and features.”
In its dispute with Japan, China’s Foreign Ministry has said that having patrol vessels in the waters around the islands was its legitimate right. “Diaoyu Island and its affiliated islands have been China’s inherent territory since ancient times,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a briefing in Beijing on Wednesday.
Tensions are already flaring in an area known for rich fishing opportunities, as Chinese government vessels spend increasingly long periods of time inside what Japan sees as its territorial waters, prompting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government to protest. The change in patterns of activity has come as Japan steps up criticism of China over its clampdown on Hong Kong.
In a white paper published earlier this month, Japan’s Defense Ministry expressed “grave concern” over Beijing’s actions in the East China Sea.
U.S. support will take the form of “information, surveillance and reconnaissance capability to help the government of Japan assess the situation,” Schneider told reporters. The U.S. has repeatedly said the islands fall under the 1960 treaty that obliges it to defend territory administered by Japan.
Schneider spoke as the two governments sought to quell concerns about the coronavirus spreading to local Japanese communities from U.S. military bases, which had posed a fresh threat to their decades-old alliance.
All military personnel transferring to Japan will have their movements restricted for two weeks from arrival, and must test negative for the virus before their freedom of movement will be restored, Schneider said.
He added, however, that he was not considering suspending the transfer of U.S. personnel to the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, as had been requested by Gov. Denny Tamaki, because this could affect military operations.
While other overseas U.S. military facilities have had flare-ups, Okinawa is especially sensitive because the heavy American military presence has been a source of contention since the end of World War Two. Okinawa is home to about half of the 54,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan and the prefecture says the 31 American military facilities take up about 15 percent of its main island.