Lt. Gen. Kevin Schneider, commander of US Forces Japan, said on Monday, aboard a Japanese warship, the exercises would demonstrate the US-Japan alliance’s ability to “provide combat forces to defend the Senkakus or to respond to other crises or contingencies.” “”
Both Tokyo and Beijing claim the Senkaku Islands, known in China as Diaoyus, as their own, but Japan has administered them since 1972.
Tensions over the uninhabited mountain range, 1,900 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, have eased for years, and with claims about them dating back centuries, neither Japan nor China are likely to give in.
Chinese ships have spent record time in the waters around the islands this year and have been convicted by Tokyo.
The US-Japan exercises called Keen Sword 21 have been held every two years for more than 30 years. This year’s exercises will last until November 5th.
The US engagement
The prospect of a military duel between Japan and China over disputed islands is even more dire as the US-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty obliges Washington to defend the islands as if they were American territory.
The US has kept this commitment, as confirmed in Schneider’s comments on Monday.
In July, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo included the Senkakus dispute as one of the areas in the Indo-Pacific where he said China had “instigated territorial disputes” to “harass” its Asian neighbors.
The massive U.S. and Japanese military presence in the Pacific this week adds visual weight to statements that Tokyo and Washington are united on the Senkakus and beyond.
The fleets include around 9,000 US troops, a strike group of US aircraft carriers, more than 100 US military aircraft, more than 37,000 Japanese troops, a flotilla of 20 warships from the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force, 100 Japanese military aircraft and a frigate from Canada . – All focused on landing large forces on islands around Okinawa, 400 kilometers east of Senkaku.
Since Yoshihide Suga became Japanese Prime Minister in September, he has been pushing for Japan’s support for a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. He has overseen Japanese naval operations in the South China Sea – which Beijing claims are almost complete – and has visited both Vietnam and Indonesia to strengthen Japanese ties with the countries that also have claims on the vast waterway. Suga has also reaffirmed defense ties with India and Australia, known along with the US and Japan as the “Quad”.
While the Quad is not a formal military alliance like NATO, it is viewed by some as a potential counterbalance to growing Chinese influence and alleged aggression in the Asia-Pacific region. The compilation was denounced by Beijing as an anti-China bloc.
Naval forces from all four quad nations will participate in the large-scale Malabar military exercises in the Indian Ocean next month.
But first, China’s eye will likely be on what happens to Keen Sword.
A statement from the US Pacific Fleet in Hawaii said that the US armed forces and Japanese forces “will train in a comprehensive scenario to exercise the critical skills necessary to support the defense of Japan and respond to a crisis or emergency in the Indo-Pacific region “.
The troops “will wield a wide range of combat capabilities and demonstrate the inherent flexibility and ability of the US and Japanese armed forces,” the Pacific Fleet said.
Photos released by the U.S. Navy on Monday showed 16 U.S., Japanese, and Canadian warships sailing in formation in the Philippine Sea at the start of the Keen Sword.
The large-scale exercises have a strong “deterrent value” to China, said Carl Schuster, a former chief of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.
“They show that the (island) seizure will not be cheap or unchallenged,” he said.
Corey Wallace, an assistant professor of Japanese foreign policy at Kanagawa University, said the exercises demonstrated a new level of interoperability between the Japanese and U.S. military.
The U.S. will land MV-22 Osprey transport aircraft on Japan’s largest warship, the JS Kaga, Wallace said. And it might just be a glimpse of what the two militaries might do with their stealth fighters in the future.
“This speaks for the intensification of the amphibious exercises, but also for the future possibilities for further cross-decking, possibly first with US-F-35B on Japanese ships and later possibly with Japanese F-35B on American amphibious ships,” said Wallace. “Demonstrating interoperability between the two forces in realistic scenarios is just as important, if not more important, than showing off shiny new hardware.”
Meanwhile, China’s People’s Liberation Army is in the midst of two military exercises in the Bohai Sea and the Yellow Sea with much less fanfare. This emerges from a post on the PLA’s official English language website. The nature of the exercises was not disclosed.
These exercises, which are scheduled to end on November 10 and October 30, respectively, are only the last in a busy few months for the Chinese military, with up to five exercises recently being performed simultaneously.
CNN’s Yoko Wakatsuki contributed to this report.