Japan and U.S. begin major military exercise as concern about China grows

On Board JS Kaga (Reuters) – Japan and the United States on Monday began air, sea and land exercises around Japan in a show of force in the face of increased Chinese military activity in the region.

The Keen Sword exercise is the first big drill since Yoshihide Suga became Japan’s prime minister last month with a vow to continue the military build-up aimed at countering China, which claims Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea.

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 United States. Running until to Nov. 5 it will include cyber and electronic warfare training for the first time.

“The security situation around Japan has become increasingly severe. This gives us the opportunity to demonstrate the strength of the Japan-U.S. alliance,” General Koji Yamazaki, Japan’s top military commander said on board the Kaga helicopter carrier in waters south of Japan.

Japan’s biggest warship was accompanied by U.S. aircraft carrier the USS Ronald Reagan and its escort destroyers. The 248 metre (814 ft) Kaga, 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.

Suga this month visited Vietnam and Indonesia as part of Japan’s efforts to bolster ties with key Southeast Asian allies. That followed a meeting in Tokyo of the “Quad”, an informal grouping of India, Australia, Japan and the United States that Washington sees as a bulwark against China’s growing regional influence. Beijing as denounced it as a “mini-NATO” aimed at containing it.

Japan has grown particularly concerned about an uptick in Chinese naval activity around the disputed islands in the East China Sea that Tokyo claims as the Senkaku and Diaoyu in Beijing.

Accompanying Gen Yamazaki on the Kaga, Lieutenant General Kevin Schneider, commander of U.S. Forces Japan pointed to recent activity by China that worried Washington and Tokyo, including new security laws in Hong Kong that had undermined 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 said it intentions in the region are peaceful.