Japanese troops will converge on California’s southern coast in the next two weeks as part of an unprecedented military exercise with US troops aimed at improving its amphibious attack abilities.
US and Japanese military officials said the training would help the Japan Self-Defense Forces better respond to crises such as natural disasters. However, China may see it differently, given the tensions between Tokyo and Beijing over islands claimed by both in the East China Sea.
“It’s another dot that the Chinese will connect to show this significant expanding military cooperation,” said Tai Ming Cheung, an analyst of Chinese and East Asian security affairs and director of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California, San Diego.
The drill comes just days after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) visit with President Barack Obama at a California estate, where they discussed topics including the Pacific region’s mounting tensions.
China asked the US and Japan to cancel the drill, scheduled to begin today, Japan’s Kyodo News service reported, citing unnamed Japanese government sources. The Japanese defense and foreign ministries would not confirm whether China had made any request, but said they are going ahead with the exercises.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not comment when asked whether Beijing requested a cancelation.
In regard to the drill itself, foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) said: “We hope the relevant sides can focus on peace and stability in this region, and do more to contribute to mutual trust and regional peace and stability.”
US military officials said strengthening Japan’s amphibious capabilities is vital as the US focuses more attention on developing an Asia-Pacific strategy amid ongoing US defense budget cuts. The region has been roiled by tensions due to North Korean long-range rocket and nuclear tests and maritime territorial disputes between China and its neighbors.
“If the 20th century taught us anything, it is that when democracies are able and willing to defend themselves, it preserves peace and stability,” said Colonel Grant Newsham, US Marine liaison to the Japanese military. “Most Asian countries welcome — even if quietly stated — a more capable [Japanese force] that is also closely allied to US forces.”
Japan’s navy is among the world’s best-equipped and best-trained, but its skills at storming beaches and other amphibious capabilities have been weak since its national defense force formed in the 1950s.
Largely in response to China’s growing military might, including the acquisition of its first aircraft carrier last year, Japan has been buying amphibious landing craft and strengthening training for potential conflicts in or around small islands. Japan is also repositioning troops to better monitor and defend its southern borders and sea lanes.
This exercise marks the first time the country’s troops will travel aboard warships so far from home, and members of Japanese air, sea and ground forces will train together with the US military, said Takashi Inoue, spokesman for the Japan Self-Defense Forces.
The drill, which ends on June 28, will train Japanese troops “on truly necessary” skills to help them deploy swiftly, whether to defend territory or provide disaster relief, Inoue said. With limited landing craft, Japan needed help from US Marines to rescue people along its tsunami-devastated coast following the 2011 earthquake.
Japan is sending three warships, about 1,000 troops and about four combat helicopters to the so-called Dawn Blitz exercise, Inoue said. Forces from New Zealand and Canada also will take part.
Tokyo’s move to boost its amphibious training is “hugely significant” since the US is obligated to defend Japanese territory under a post-World War II security pact, said Kerry Gershaneck of the Pacific Forum-Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“We cannot ask young American Marines to fight and die doing a job that Japanese forces cannot, or will not, do,” he said. “The US Marines will help, but they must have a capable partner.”