The US, Japan and South Korea began joint naval exercises in waters near China and the Korean Peninsula on Thursday, underscoring efforts to tighten military co-operation between the three nations.
The drills, which are certain to irk Beijing, are the latest example of strengthening ties among Beijing’s neighbours and between them and the US, which the Chinese government and military see as attempts to contain their country’s rise.
South Korean civic groups protested against the exercises at a rally on Thursday, however.Japan and South Korea are both close allies of the US, but direct defence co-operation between the Asian neighbours has been limited by political sensitivities and lingering Korean resentment over past Japanese occupation and colonisation.
The two-day trilateral drills, which involve a US aircraft carrier battle group, three Japanese destroyers and South Korean warships, came after repeated calls from Washington for closer three-way co-operation.
“We strongly urge the three nations to stop their joint military drills as they would cause serious military tension and conflicts in Northeast Asia,” said the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a leading civic group.
The PSPD said there should be no military co-operation with Japan, saying Tokyo had failed to show serious repentance for “past wrongdoing” or respect for the pacifistic Japanese constitution.
Multilateral military co-operation is also a sensitive issue in Japan, where many people are wary of any further erosion of postwar restrictions on the development and use of armed forces.
Japan’s defence ministry sought to play down the significance of the exercises, stressing that the three countries had repeatedly held trilateral drills in recent years.
However, Japan’s Kyodo news agency quoted the US defence department as saying that the two-day exercises were the first involving the three nations to be conducted in waters off the Korean Peninsula.
Personnel of the Maritime Self Defence Force – as Japan’s navy is officially known – had previously only joined exercises in the area as observers, Kyodo said.
After the trilateral drill, the US and South Korean navies will conduct “a routine carrier operation” in the Yellow Sea, west of the peninsula, from Saturday to Monday.
China’s defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the carrier exercise is certainly too close to Chinese borders for Beijing to feel comfortable. When the US last planned such war games in 2010, the Chinese government opposed the idea and in particular the potential participation of a US aircraft carrier, referring to the Yellow Sea as China’s “coastal waters”.
The exercises are part of wider drills marking the 62nd anniversary of the Korean war.
The US and South Korea will hold their largest one-day, joint live-fire exercise on Friday in Pocheon, about 15 miles south of the border with North Korea.
The exercise will focus on how to respond in case of a North Korean attack similar to the one on June 25, 1950. “The war is not over. We should face the stark reality where a war can occur any time,” said Kim Min-seok, a spokesman for Seoul’s defence ministry. “We think the joint exercise will be the largest ever in terms of scale. North Korea calls it a provocation, but a military cannot be competent if it does not exercise,” he said.