American troops could be sent to disputed islands in the East China Sea, the head of US forces in Japan said, as the two allies began a high-profile drill amid growing concerns over Beijing’s military activities in the region.
“Our arrival today was simply to demonstrate the ability to move a few people, but the same capability could be used to deploy combat troops to defend the Senkaku Islands or respond to other crises and contingencies,” Lieutenant General Kevin Schneider, commander of US Forces Japan, said on Monday.
Schneider made the remarks after touching down on a Japanese destroyer in waters south of Japan for the start of Keen Sword 21, the first joint military exercise between the countries since Yoshihide Suga became prime minister last month.
He was referring to a group of uninhabited but strategically located islands claimed by Japan and China, where they are known as the Diaoyus, as well as Taiwan. Controlled by Japan, the islands and the waters that surround them are at the centre of a bitter maritime territorial dispute between Beijing and Tokyo.
Accompanied by General Koji Yamazaki, Japan’s top military commander, on board the JS Kaga warship, Schneider also took aim at recent “malign activities on the part of Beijing”. He listed the national security law imposed in Hong Kong, Beijing’s military build-up in the South China Sea, and the PLA’s harassment of Taiwan, according to US military newspaper Stars and Stripes.
The 10-day biennial air, sea and land exercise involves some 37,000 Japanese military personnel and 9,000 from the United States, as well as 20 ships and 170 aircraft.
This year it will include cyber and electronic warfare training for the first time, and the Royal Canadian Navy will also take part. It will also see amphibious landings on islands off the coast of Japan, according to the US Indo-Pacific Command.
While the joint exercise is held every two years, this year it is taking place amid heightened tensions between the US and China. In the latest flare-up between the two superpowers, Washington on Monday said it had approved the sale of 100 Harpoon coastal defence systems to Taiwan. It came just hours after China said it would impose sanctions on three US companies – Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies and Boeing Defence – involved in last week’s US$1.8 billion arms sale to the self-ruled island, which Beijing sees as part of its territory.
Japan has long complained about Chinese coastguard ships sailing in waters near the Diaoyu Islands, which it called “coercive and unilateral actions” in a defence white paper in July.
Schneider’s remarks on the islands were seen by Japanese defence officials as a warning to China, according to broadcaster NHK.
It was not the first time the US commander has commented on the contested islands in the East China Sea. In July, he said the US was “100 per cent absolutely steadfast in its commitment to help” Japan with the situation.
Beijing has meanwhile been wary about any American involvement in its territorial disputes in both the East and South China seas. In 2014, when then president Barack Obama said the Diaoyus were covered by the US-Japan defence treaty, Beijing said it “firmly opposed putting the islands” under the treaty, saying it was an agreement that had been forged during the Cold War.