Japanese troops will converge on California's southern coast in the next two weeks as part of an unprecedented military exercise with U.S. troops aimed at improving that country's amphibious attack abilities.
U.S. and Japanese military officials said the training will help Japan's Self-Defense Force better respond to crises such as natural disasters. But China may see it differently, given the tensions between Tokyo and Beijing over islands claimed by both in the East China Sea.
"It's another dot that the Chinese will connect to show this significant expanding military cooperation," said Tai Ming Cheung, an analyst of Chinese and East Asian security affairs and director of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California, San Diego.
The drill comes just days after Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit with President Barack Obama at a California estate, where they discussed topics including the Pacific region's mounting tensions.
China asked the United States and Japan to cancel the drill, scheduled to begin Tuesday, Japan's Kyodo News service reported, citing unnamed Japanese government sources. The Japanese Defense and Foreign Ministries would not confirm whether China had made any request but said they are going ahead with the exercises.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond to The Associated Press for comment on whether China requested a cancellation. In regard to the drill itself, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said: "We hope the relevant sides can focus on peace and stability in this region, and do more to contribute to mutual trust and regional peace and stability."
U.S. military officials said strengthening Japan's amphibious capabilities is vital as the U.S. focuses more attention on developing an Asia-Pacific strategy amid ongoing Defense Department budget cuts. The region has been roiled by tensions due to North Korean long-range rocket and nuclear tests and maritime territorial disputes between China and its neighbors.
"If the 20th century taught us anything, it is that when democracies are able and willing to defend themselves, it preserves peace and stability," said Col. Grant Newsham, Marine liaison to the Japanese military. "Most Asian countries welcome — even if quietly stated — a more capable (Japanese force) that is also closely allied to U.S. forces."
China recently asserted its dominance over what they call Diaoyutai, and Japan calls the Senkaku Islands, by sending government ships into Japanese territorial waters in April. China has said it is only safeguarding its sovereignty.
The uninhabited islands are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China. Japan's nationalization of the islands in September triggered violent protests across China. Beijing has increasingly patrolled the area, prompting Japan to dispatch fighter jets to monitor Chinese aircraft, raising the risk of missteps that could trigger a clash.
Japan's navy is among the world's best-equipped and best-trained, but its skills at storming beaches and other amphibious capabilities have been weak since its national defense force formed in the 1950s.
Largely in response to China's growing military might — including the acquisition of its first aircraft carrier last year — Japan has been buying amphibious landing craft and strengthening training for potential conflicts in or around small islands. Japan is also repositioning its troops to better monitor and defend its southern borders and sea lanes.
This exercise marks the first time the country's troops will travel aboard warships so far from home, and members of Japanese air, sea and ground forces will train together with the U.S. military, said Cmdr. Takashi Inoue, spokesman for the Japanese Self-Defense Force.
The drill, which ends June 28, will train Japanese troops "on truly necessary" skills to help them deploy swiftly, whether to defend territory or provide disaster relief, Inoue said. With limited landing craft, Japan needed help from U.S. Marines to rescue people along its tsunami-devastated coast following the 2011 earthquake.
Japan is sending three warships, about 1,000 service members and about four combat helicopters to the so-called Dawn Blitz exercise, Inoue said. Forces from New Zealand and Canada also will take part.
Tokyo's move to boost its amphibious training is "hugely significant" since the United States is obligated to defend Japanese territory under a post-World War II security pact, said Kerry Gershaneck of the Pacific Forum-Center for Strategic & International Studies.
"We cannot ask young American Marines to fight and die doing a job that Japanese forces cannot, or will not, do," he said. "The U.S. Marines will help, but they must have a capable partner."