Joint exercises in the Pacific between U.S. Marines and Japanese troops were planned long before a recent flare-up between Japan and China over islands in the East China Sea which have been controlled by Japan since the late 19th century but are also claimed by China.
But the Chinese media seized on a comment in a Japanese newspaper report, citing an unnamed Japanese defense ministry official as hinting that the exercise was aimed at China and linking it to an island dispute.
Last week Japan’s coastguard prevented Chinese activists from landing on islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, and then three days later Japanese nationalists managed to do so, hoisting their country’s flag there.
Running from Tuesday through September 26, the live fire exercises involve the III Marine Expeditionary Force, based on Japan’s southernmost island of Okinawa, and members of Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force.
The drills are being held in Guam, a U.S. territory, and Tinian island 100 miles to the north, part of the U.S. commonwealth of Northern Marianas. According to the region’s Marianas Variety newspaper, a senior U.S. military officer discussed the exercise with the mayor of Tinian as long ago as last April.
In the aftermath of last week’s escalation, Beijing’s state-run China Daily said Wednesday the exercises were “a clear signal that the U.S. was throwing its military weight behind Japan over the Diaoyu Islands issue.”
“The timing of the drill, and Washington’s involvement, will complicate the situation, analysts said,” the paper continued. “After announcing its shift of strategic emphasis back to the Asia-Pacific region, Washington is using the Diaoyu Islands issue as a chance to speed up its military revamp in the region.”
The Communist Party organ People’s Daily said in a column that the U.S. was misjudging the situation, and that both the U.S. and Japan “underestimate China’s resolve to defend its sovereignty.”
“China will not ignore hostile gestures from other nations and give up on its core interests or change its course of development,” it added.
China traditionally identified as its “core interests” Taiwan, Tibet and the far-western Xinjiang province, but in recent years has added to those the Senkakus/Diaoyus as well as the South China Sea, where it has territorial disputes with a number of countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines.
“It is advisable that the United States not fan the flame in the region,” the official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary Tuesday.
“Given the recent flaring tensions over the Diaoyu Islands, the deliberate decision to carry out such an agitative drill serves nothing but fuels the fire, as it will aggravate the situation and jeopardize any future efforts for a peaceful settlement.”
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday she was not aware of the military drill.
“I haven’t heard about anything unusual, so I’m going to guess that this is a regular exercise pursuant to our alliance, designed to enhance peace and security and interoperability there.”
The Obama administration, like its predecessor, maintains that the islands fall within the scope of article five the 1960 U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.
The article says in part, “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes.”
Questioned about this stance during a press briefing last month, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said China “firmly opposes such a claim.”
“Private deals made between the U.S. and Japan after World War II concerning the Diaoyu Islands are illegal and invalid,” he said.