China on alert? Japan and US begin major military exercise as tensions with Beijing soar
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The Keen Sword exercise is the first big drill since Yoshihide Suga became Japan’s prime minister last month and vowed to continue a military build-up aimed at countering China, which claims Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea. The drills come against a backdrop of growing concern about a surge in Chinese naval activity around the disputed islands in the East China Sea that Tokyo claims as the Senkaku and Beijing claims as Diaoyu.
The security situation around Japan has become increasingly severe
General Koji Yamazaki
Keen Sword, which is held every two years, involves dozens of warships, hundreds of aircraft and 46,000 soldiers, sailors and marines from Japan and the US.
This year’s drills, which will include cyber and electronic warfare training for the first time, are being spearheaded sea by Japan’s biggest warship, the Kaga helicopter carrier.
The 814ft vessel, which was returning from patrols in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, will be refitted as early as next year to carry F-35 stealth fighters.
Kaga is being accompanied by US aircraft carrier the USS Ronald Reagan and its escort destroyers in waters south of Japan.
General Koji Yamazaki, Japan’s top military commander, said: “The security situation around Japan has become increasingly severe.
“This gives us the opportunity to demonstrate the strength of the Japan-US alliance.”
Lieutenant General Kevin Schneider, commander of US Forces in Japan, said: “As we develop new and better ways to operate and integrate, exercises like this clearly demonstrate the growing strength of the US-Japan Alliance.
“In spite of the immense global impact from COVID, the US-Japan Alliance did not falter and we have remained ready to fight and win.”
Around 9,000 personnel from the US Navy, Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps are taking part in the drills.
Units from the US military and their Japanese counterparts will train in scenarios designed to test the critical capabilities required to support the defence of Japan and respond to a crisis or contingency in the Indo-Pacific region.
Lieut Gen Schneider highlighted recent activity by China that has sparked growing concern in Washington and Tokyo.
These include the new security laws in Hong Kong that threaten to undermine the territory’s autonomy, China’s military build-up in the South China Sea and harassment of Taiwan by the Chinese military over the past few months.
China has insisted its intentions in the region are peaceful.
Mr Suga visited Vietnam and Indonesia earlier this month as part of Japan’s efforts to bolster ties with key Southeast Asian allies.
The visits followed a meeting in Tokyo of the Quad group, an informal grouping of India, Australia, Japan and the US that Washington sees as a barrier against China’s growing regional influence.
Beijing has denounced the Quad as a “mini-NATO” aimed at containing it.
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The Keen Sword drills come as US officials stoked tensions with Beijing by deploying several Coast Guard vessels to the South China Sea.
White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said the US Coast Guard was “strategically home-porting significantly enhanced Fast Response Cutters in the western Pacific”.
Mr O’Brien said: “The People’s Republic of China’s illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and harassment of vessels operating in the Exclusive Economic Zones of other countries in the Indo-Pacific, threatens our sovereignty, as well as the sovereignty of our Pacific neighbours and endangers regional stability.”
He said US efforts were “critical to countering these destabilising and malign activities”.
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