Chinese and Japanese ships encounter each other almost daily around waters off contested islands in the East China Sea. As both align for multinational naval exercises under way in Hawaii meant to build trust, the two sides have barely made contact.
Rear Admiral Yasuki Nakahata, the Japanese commander, welcomed China’s presence for the first time in the biennial U.S.-led drills. Their involvement will create a “better international security environment” at sea, he said in an interview on Ford Island, Pearl Harbor.
China has sent four ships, the second-largest fleet, to the five-week-long Rim of the Pacific Exercise, or Rimpac, while Japan dispatched two destroyers. Yet the two sides have had no planned meetings or joint drills, Nakahata said. The closest they came was when he exchanged a verbal greeting with the commander of a Chinese ship, he said.
“This is just the beginning,” said Nakahata, at the military base where fighter jets whoosh overhead and helicopters ferry military officers to warships in the Pacific. “Facing the same direction is good for all of us.”
China’s Rimpac debut is a chance to show its rising prowess as well as improve strained ties with the U.S. as tensions run high in the Asia-Pacific amid its muscular approach to territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. The most fractious relationship is with Japan, with China sending regular patrols to islands in the East China Sea that its World War II foe administers.
In July, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to expand the role of Japan’s military to include the defense of allies, passing a resolution to reinterpret the pacifist constitution. The move brought a rebuke from China which warned against a return to militarism and for Japan to reflect on its past aggression. Abe has been rebuffed in his efforts to hold a summit with China since coming to power in December 2012.
Japan did take a leadership role in a large international drill for the first time, when Nakahata led a mock “humanitarian assistance disaster relief” operation earlier this month in Hawaii. The virtual exercise, which simulated a typhoon striking a small island, also involved the U.S., New Zealand, Indonesia, Australia, and Canada.
Japan will actively contribute or take leadership roles in further non-combat military operations, Nakahata said. “It’s a great step for Japan.”
Japan has also been invited to join separate military exercises with the U.S. and India in the northern Pacific this month, Amy Searight, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, told a congressional hearing last week.
It’s good for Asian countries to take a greater role protecting security in the region, Commander Rear Admiral Gilles Couturier of the Royal Canadian Navy said in a separate interview at Ford Island.
“We’re happy that the Japanese are looking at more ways to contribute to what’s happening in the world right now,” he said. “They are in the region, nobody in the region has no challenges. It’s a good thing if they rise up and try to deal with some of those situations.”
Japan’s raised visibility comes as it faces an expanding Chinese navy, with President Xi Jinping vowing to restore the nation as a maritime power. China lost a 1895 naval battle to Japan, then was invaded by the country’s troops in 1937, before World War II.
Disputes over Japan’s wartime past have further soured relations as their militaries chase each other around the East China Sea. While China has boosted its defense spending by an average annual pace of more than 10 percent during the past two decades, Abe ended stagnation in Japan’s military budget with increases in the past two years.
In August Japan unveiled the 19,500-ton Izumo, the largest Japanese military ship produced since World War II, and it will start building two Aegis destroyers equipped with advanced missile-defense system from fiscal 2015, Yomiuri newspaper reported yesterday, without citing anyone.
Jets from Japan and China flew within 50 meters of one another on May 24, during the first joint naval exercises between China and Russia in the East China Sea. Nakahata says the closest he expects to come to his Chinese counterpart at Rimpac is at the closing ceremony on Aug. 1.
— With assistance by Henry Sanderson