The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) and the U.S. Navy are holding a joint naval exercise in the South China Sea, the Yomiuri Shimbun reports. The exercise marks the first bilateral U.S.-Japan exercise in the area. The drill comes days after the United States staged its first freedom of navigation operation within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese artificial island in the Spratly Islands. The Japanese Defense Ministry has told the Yomiuri that the ongoing South China Sea drill between the two allied navies is “an ordinary drill and unrelated to the U.S. Navy’s patrolling activities there.” The exercise is reportedly not taking place near the Spratly Islands.
Per the Yomiuri, the JS Fuyuzuki, an Akizuki-class destroyer, is currently conducting drills of an unspecified nature in the South China Sea with the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a Nimitz-class super-carrier. Both the Fuyuzuki and the Theodore Roosevelt participated in the recently concluded Malabar 2015 exercise – a trilateral naval exercise with India. Malabar 2015 concluded on October 19, 2015.
The Theodore Roosevelt docked in Singapore on October 24, three days before the scheduled U.S. freedom of navigation operation. The drills in the South China Sea between the U.S. Navy and the MSDF began on Wednesday and will “continue for several days” according to the Yomiuri. The report adds that the exercise will focus on the transportation of crew members and communication training exercises.
According to the Mainichi, the Fuyuzuki and the USS Theodore Roosevelt will sail “to waters just north of Borneo in the South China Sea.” The MSDF ship is expected to head back to Japan on November 10, meaning that this U.S.-Japan exercise will effectively last for nearly two weeks.
Japan’s involvement in the South China Sea has been limited to date. Most recently, in August, the MSDF participated in a humanitarian drill with the U.S. and Philippines off Subic Bay, the site of a former U.S. naval base. The Philippines, along with Japan, is a U.S. ally. As I noted at the time, the exercise demonstrated growing trilateral convergence between the three countries. Earlier, in June, Japan’s MSDF flew a P3-C Orion surveillance aircraft past Reed Bank in the South China Sea. Reed Bank is claimed by both China and the Philippines. During that operation, the MSDF aircraft carried three Philippines crew members.
Critically, the ongoing exercise in the South China Sea between the Japanese and U.S. navies is not a freedom of navigation operation. The United States may consider inviting Japan to participate in freedom of navigation and overflight assertion activities in the South China Sea, but, as things stand, Japan has good reasons to avoid a regular military presence in the South China Sea. Despite reservations, Japanese officials have said that they would consider joint patrols in the South China Sea with the United States.