Speaking aboard a Japanese warship Monday, Lt. Gen. Kevin Schneider, commander of US Forces Japan, said the exercises would demonstrate the ability of the US-Japan alliance “to deliver combat troops to defend the Senkakus or respond to other crises or contingencies.”
Tensions over the uninhabited rocky chain, 1,200 miles (1,900 kilometers) southwest of Tokyo, have simmered for years, and with claims over them dating back centuries, neither Japan nor China is likely to back down.
Chinese vessels have been spending record amounts of time in the waters around the islands this year, drawing condemnation from Tokyo.
The US-Japan exercises, named Keen Sword 21, have been held biennially for more than 30 years. This year’s exercises run through to November 5.
The US commitment
The prospect of any Japan-China military face-off over disputed islands holds even more gravity because the US-Japan mutual defense treaty obligates Washington to defend the islands as if they are American territory.
The US has been steadfast in that commitment, as echoed in Schneider’s comments on Monday.
In July, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo included the Senkakus dispute as one of the areas in the Indo-Pacific where he said China was “instigating territorial disputes” as part of a pattern of “bullying” its Asian neighbors.
So the huge US and Japanese military presence in the Pacific this week adds visual heft to statements that Tokyo and Washington stand united over the Senkakus and beyond.
The fleets include some 9,000 US troops, a US aircraft carrier strike group, more than 100 US military aircraft, more than 37,000 Japanese troops, a flotilla of 20 Japan Maritime Self Defense Force warships, 100 Japanese military planes, plus a frigate from Canada — all focused on landing large forces on islands around Okinawa, 250 miles (400 kilometers) to the east of the Senkakus.
While not a formal military alliance like NATO, the Quad is seen by some as a potential counterweight to growing Chinese influence and alleged aggression in Asia-Pacific. The collation has been denounced by Beijing as an anti-China bloc.
Naval forces from all four Quad nations will participate in the large-scale Malabar military exercises in the Indian Ocean next month.
But first China’s eye will likely be focused on what’s happening with Keen Sword.
A statement from the US Pacific Fleet in Hawaii said the US and Japanese forces “will train in a comprehensive scenario designed to exercise the critical capabilities required to support the defense of Japan and respond to a crisis or contingency in the Indo-Pacific region.”
The troops “will exercise a wide range of warfighting capabilities and demonstrate the inherent flexibility and capability of the US and Japanese militaries,” the Pacific Fleet statement said.
Photos released by the US Navy on Monday showed 16 US, Japanese and Canadian warships sailing in formation in the Philippine Sea as Keen Sword began.
The large-scale exercises have strong “deterrent value” toward China, said Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.
“They show (island) seizure…