In an implicit message to China, the Japanese and U.S. militaries teamed up this week for a number of joint exercises involving warships, heavy bombers, advanced fighter jets and an aircraft carrier in the waters and airspace near Japan.
The scale and tempo of the multiple joint exercises was noticeably large and came as Sino-U.S. tensions continued to spiral over security, economic and human rights concerns.
Amid growing acrimony between the two superpowers, Tokyo has looked to maintain balance in its economic and security interests involving Beijing and Washington, but has taken part in a number of less-provocative joint military drills with the U.S. in recent days.
On Wednesday, the Maritime Self-Defense Force and the U.S. Navy announced they had wrapped up four days of joint combat training involving the MSDF’s Ikazuchi destroyer and the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier and its strike group in the flashpoint East China Sea, home to the Senkaku Islands, and in the adjacent Philippine Sea on Tuesday.
The week’s training also saw the Reagan conduct joint integrated training with two U.S. Air Force B-1B bombers from Dyess Air Force Base in Texas as part of the Air Force’s latest so-called Bomber Task Force mission, which sends heavy bombers on long-range shows of force to the region.
Separately, joint training around the nation on Tuesday also saw a total of 20 Air Self-Defense Force fighter jets link up with three U.S. B-1B bombers and 15 fighter jets, including advanced F-35Bs, over 24 hours.
In a simultaneous show of air power, two B-2 stealth bombers deployed to Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia conducted joint interoperability tactics training in the Indian Ocean, the U.S. Pacific Air Forces said.
Also on Tuesday, Defense Minister Taro Kono met with China’s ambassador to Japan, Kong Xuanyou, demanding that his country refrain from military activities around the Japanese-controlled, China-claimed Senkakus, which Beijing calls the Diaoyu.
The meeting came after Japan last month accused Chinese government ships of repeated intrusions into its territorial waters around the islands, including during a record 111 straight days this year.
Earlier this month, Kono warned Beijing that the SDF would respond if Chinese government vessels continued to intensify their activities around the Senkakus.
“The SDF will act firmly when necessary, working together with the Japan Coast Guard (JCG),” he said at an Aug. 4 news conference.
Tokyo has traditionally sent the JCG in response to Chinese maritime law enforcement vessels entering Japanese territorial waters. Observers say any shift to deploying the SDF could prompt a similar move by China, raising the odds of military confrontation — one that would almost assuredly involve the U.S. as Japan’s top security ally.
The U.S. has said the Senkakus are covered under Article 5 of the security treaty between the two countries, though some in Tokyo have voiced concerns over whether Washington would respond to Chinese aggression over the uninhabited islets.
In an attempt to reinforce its commitment, the commander of U.S. Forces Japan vowed late last month to help Japan deal with incursions by Chinese vessels in the waterway.
Addressing U.S. tie-ups with partners like Japan, the commanding officer of the Reagan said in a statement Wednesday that working together was key to the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.
“Seamless integration with our allies ensures a lethal and flexible global force, answering the call for prompt and sustained combat operations from the sea,” Capt. Pat Hannifin said.
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