By Julie Watson
The Associated Press
SAN DIEGO, Calif. (AP) — Japanese troops will converge on California’s southern coast in the next two weeks as part of a military exercise with U.S. troops aimed at improving that country’s amphibious attack abilities.
U.S. and Japanese military officials said the unprecedented training, led by U.S. Marines and sailors, will help Japan’s Self-Defense Force operate in stronger coordination with the United States, its main ally, and better respond to crises such as natural disasters.
China may see it differently, however, given the tensions between Tokyo and Beijing over a long-running dispute concerning 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.
China asked the United States and Japan to cancel the drill, scheduled to begin June 11, 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.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond to The Associated Press for comment on whether China requested a cancellation. In regard to the drill itself, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei 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.”
The drill comes just days after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit with President Barack Obama at an estate in the nearby California desert, at which the two discussed topics including the Pacific region’s mounting tensions.
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.
The San Diego 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 U.S. military, said Cmdr. Takashi Inoue, spokesman for the Japanese Self-Defense Force.
The drill, which ends 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 U.S. Marines to rescue people along its tsunami-devastated coast following the 2011 earthquake.
Japan is sending three warships, about 1,000 service members and about four combat helicopters to the so-called Dawn Blitz exercise, Inoue said. Forces from New Zealand and Canada also will take part.
The troops will practice an amphibious assault on San Clemente Island, a naval training ground off San Diego’s coast, and also conduct a mock beach invasion at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton north of San Diego.
Tokyo’s move to boost its amphibious training is “hugely significant” since the United States is obligated to defend Japanese territory under a post-World War II security pact, said Kerry Gershaneck of the Pacific Forum-Center for Strategic & 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 U.S. Marines will help, but they must have a capable partner.” (end)
AP reporters Eric Talmadge in Tokyo and Zhao Liang in Beijing contributed to this report.