Japanese warships in joint exercises with US carrier strike group before ‘armada’ steams toward North Korea
The US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and other warships started joint exercises with Japan on Sunday, the American navy said, as regional tensions rise over North Korea’s missile and nuclear programmes.
The exercises - also involving a US guided-missile cruiser and guided-missile destroyer - are being held in the Philippine Sea, the navy said, as the naval strike group “continued its northern transit in the Western Pacific”.
Confusion has clouded the carrier group’s whereabouts in recent days after US President Donald Trump suggested the “armada” was steaming towards North Korea when in fact it was sent towards Australia.
An image from the US military dated April 15 showed the carrier on a “scheduled deployment” in the Sunda Strait off Indonesia, which is 5,600km from the Korean peninsula.
On Saturday US Vice-President Mike Pence said in Sydney the strike group would arrive in the Sea of Japan (East Sea) “in a matter of days”.
Pence has vowed an “overwhelming and effective” response to any North Korean attack as fears grow it may be preparing for another nuclear test.
Pyongyang reacted defiantly.
State newspaper Minju Joson quoted what it called military sources as saying Washington plans to station “several nuclear carrier task forces” off the Korean peninsula this week.
“The army of the DPRK (North Korea) already declared it will deal merciless destructive blows at the enemies so that they would not come back to life again should they make reckless provocation,” the paper said.
The Carl Vinson carrier strike group and the Japanese navy “commenced an at-sea bilateral exercise in the Philippine Sea” on Sunday, the US Navy posted on its Facebook page.
The joint drill is designed to “ensure maritime forces remain ready to defend the region when called upon”, it said.
“Seeing the threats we are facing now, it is no surprise that Japan and the United States conduct joint exercises,” Toshimitsu Motegi, a senior ruling party lawmaker, told Japan’s NHK public broadcaster, adding the exercises would send a “strong message”.
Japan’s show of naval force reflects growing concern that North Korea could strike it with nuclear or chemical warheads.
Some Japanese ruling party lawmakers are urging Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to acquire strike weapons that could hit North Korean missile forces before any imminent attack.
Japan’s navy, which is mostly a destroyer fleet, is the second largest in Asia after China’s.
The two Japanese warships, the Samidare and Ashigara, left western Japan on Friday to join the Carl Vinson and will “practice a variety of tactics” with the US strike group, the Japan Maritime Self Defence Force said in a statement.
The Japanese force did not specify where the exercises were taking place but by Sunday the destroyers could have reached an area 2,500 km south of Japan, which would be waters east of the Philippines.
From there, it could take three days to reach waters off the Korean peninsula. Japan’s ships would accompany the Carl Vinson north at least into the East China Sea, a source with knowledge of the plan said.
US and South Korean officials have been saying for weeks that the North could soon stage another nuclear test, something the United States, China and others have warned against.
South Korea has put is forces on heightened alert.
China, North Korea’s sole major ally which nevertheless opposes Pyongyang’s weapons programmes and belligerence, has appealed for calm. The United States has called on China to do more to help defuse the tension.
Last Thursday, Trump praised Chinese efforts to rein in “the menace of North Korea”, after North Korean state media warned the United States of a “super-mighty pre-emptive strike”.
Additional reporting by Reuters