TOKYO (Reuters) – A fleet of U.S., Japanese and Indian warships will hold a large-scale joint naval exercise over eight days from Friday in the Western Pacific, close to a Japanese island chain, part of which China claims.
As China pushes its territorial claims in the neighbouring South China Sea, Tokyo and Washington worry it will look to extend its influence into the Western Pacific, with a growing fleet of submarines and surface vessels to ply distant oceans.
The drill, dubbed Malabar, is an annual event between the U.S. and India, and Japan is joining it this year for the first time since 2007, Japan’s Ministry of Defense said in a statement.
Among the Japanese warships, which will practice submarine hunting and anti-aircraft defence, will be the Hyuga, one of the country’s three new helicopter carriers. Last year, the drill was held in the Bay of Bengal near India.
Japan’s southwestern island chain, which hosts the biggest concentration of U.S. military personnel in Asia, blocks China’s east coast access to the Western Pacific. Japan’s military is reinforcing the islands with radar stations and anti-ship missile batteries.
Lying around 220 km (137 miles) west of Taiwan are a group of uninhabited isles, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China, which are controlled by Tokyo and claimed by Beijing.
On Tuesday, China told the United States it should play a constructive role in safeguarding peace in the disputed South China Sea, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for talks and a peaceful resolution.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion (3 trillion pounds) in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims, as well as close military ties with the United States.
(Reporting by Tim Kelly and Nobuhiro Kubo; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)