Japan's navy marked its 60th anniversary with a major exercise yesterday as Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda warned that the country faces "severe" challenges to its security, underscoring tension with China over a territorial dispute and the threat of North Korea's weapons programmes.
This comes as local media reported Japan and the US are mulling a joint military drill to simulate retaking a remote island from foreign forces.
The exercise, part of broader joint manoeuvres to start early next month, would use an uninhabited island in southern Okinawa prefecture, Jiji Press and Kyodo News agencies quoted unidentified sources as saying on Saturday.
The drill would involve Japanese and US troops retaking the island using boats and helicopters, Kyodo said.
The exercise would reportedly use the uninhabited island of Irisunajima. The tiny island, used as a firing range for US forces, is also in the East China Sea but hundreds of kilometres away from the disputed island chain, called the Diaoyus in China and Senkakus in Japan.
Jiji Press said some Japanese and US government officials were cautious about holding the drill, fearing a likely angry response from China.
Noda braved occasional bouts of drizzle to review the fleet that passed in front of him while SDF helicopters and P-3C anti-submarine patrol planes flew overhead.
"It is needless to say that the security environment surrounding Japan is getting tougher than ever," Noda told about 8,000 servicemen and women, mostly from the navy, from aboard the destroyer Kurama.
"We have a neighbour that launches missiles under the pretence of satellite launches. We have developments concerning territory and sovereignty."
His remarks were relayed to ships gathered in the area, including the cruiser USS Shiloh and warships from Singapore and Australia. Representatives from more than 20 countries, including China, also attended the event in waters south of Tokyo.
Japan's Coast Guard had planned to send one of its patrol ships to the naval review, but it cancelled the vessel's participation because the heightened tensions prompted it to allocate more ships to the disputed area.
Patrol vessels from Japan and China have been keeping a wary watch on each other near the disputed islets, raising concerns that an unintended collision or other incident could develop into a broader clash.
Strictly speaking, Japan has no navy as Article 9 of its post-second world war constitution forbids the country from maintaining a formal military. But its Maritime Self-Defence Force, as it known, is still among the world's best-trained and equipped. As part of a post war mutual defence pact, Japan also hosts the US 7th Fleet, which includes the USS George Washington carrier battle group.
But Tokyo has been alarmed in recent years by the rise of China's naval forces, which some strategists say could upset the regional status quo.
In response, Japan is strengthening its naval fleet and considering the purchase of drones.
Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse