Big Exercise, Low Profile, In Japan-China Dispute

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U.S. Navy

U.S. Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships underway in Japan waters during Keen Sword exercise in December 2010.

TOKYO – One of the largest-ever joint training exercises between U.S. and Japanese troops is underway in and around the Japanese home islands – but you won’t hear a lot about it.  And for that you can credit tensions with China.

More than 47,000 U.S. and Japanese troops, scores of warships and hundreds of combat aircraft are taking part in the exercise, which runs through November 16. The plan is to test the ability of U.S. and Japanese forces to respond to a variety of air, sea and land threats.

The so-called Keen Sword exercise is held every two years, but comes this year at a particularly sensitive time.  Japanese and Chinese patrol ships are engaged in a dangerous game of cat and mouse around disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Japan insists the islands, which it calls Senkaku, are Japanese territory, and has maintained a steady presence of Coast Guard vessels offshore. China also claims the islands, which it calls Diaoyu, and has been sending maritime surveillance vessels into or near territorial waters almost daily. There have been no direct clashes so far, but tensions remain high.

The row was triggered when Japan’s national government in September agreed to buy the islands from private owners, and Tokyo has been struggling to lower the temperature ever since.

Authorities last month quietly canceled what would have been a centerpiece of this year’s Keen Sword exercise — an amphibious landing with Marines and Japanese ground troops. They also are restricting news coverage of the exercise, which has been widely publicized in the past. Both moves were clearly designed to avoid further antagonizing the Chinese.

Politically, that was smart, says Alessio Patalano, a lecturer at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, and a specialist in East Asian security and naval strategy.

“With no amphibious exercise, no one in China can claim that the U.S. and Japan are showing an aggressive behavior and that prevents the more conservative voices in China from gaining points,” says Patalano.

But militarily, maybe not so smart.

The Japan Self Defense Forces have been trying to develop an amphibious warfare capability since 2007, and the joint landings with Marines would have been the most ambitious training effort yet. Japan’s southern islands stretch some 700 miles (1,126 km) from the main islands and are largely undefended.

“Cancelling the amphibious landing was a serious mistake,” says Jun Kitamura, a naval consultant who splits time between Tokyo and Southern California.  “It puts a crimp in the JSDF’s efforts to build an amphibious capability of its own and it sends a message to that if China takes the offensive, Japan will back off.”

Mid-level diplomats from China and Japan have been meeting this week to try to defuse the dispute, but no progress has been announced.

U.S. and Japanese force may have another crack at storming ashore early next year. Discussions are underway to send a Japanese amphibious landing ship and some 300 ground troops to take part in the Marine’s Dawn Blitz  exercise in Southern California in February.

And the Chinese? They’re conducting a large-scale amphibious landing exercise in the South China Sea, this week.  Not sure how much we’re going to hear about that one, either.