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A Japan Coast Guard vessel seen near the Diaoyu Islands, known by Japan as the Senkaku Islands. Photo: Reuters

US forces flew close to disputed Diaoyu Islands in February: report

  • The manoeuvres involved transport aircraft airdropping supplies off the islands, which are claimed by China but controlled by Japan
  • The drill signals Washington’s commitment to the US-Japan security treaty, which covers the Diaoyus in the East China Sea, one analyst says
US forces carried out a military exercise in waters close to disputed islands in the East China Sea in mid-February, ahead of a Quad meeting and a visit by top US officials to Japan, national broadcaster NHK reported on Thursday.
The manoeuvres involved transport aircraft airdropping supplies off the  Diaoyu Islands, which China claims as its sovereign territory but which Japan controls and refers to as the Senkaku Islands.

NHK said the US personnel did not set foot on the ground during the February 17 drills and no Japanese forces were involved.

A resupply exercise would appear to be relatively routine and unaggressive, although one security analyst suggested it would hold significantly more meaning for military experts.

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“Carrying out air drops of equipment is a demonstration of the US military’s capabilities around the Senkakus in the event of an incursion into the area by a third party,” said Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University. 

“In the event that a belligerent tries to take the islands, the US will deploy air and sea units that initially create a space around the territories and then they will eliminate the invaders,” he said.

“An important part of that and the third phase is then resupplying the units that are deployed, including those that would then be on the islands to defend them from a counter-attack,” Nagy added. “This looks pretty ordinary, but in truth, it is a demonstration of their capability and determination to take and then hold this territory again.”

China claims the Japan-controlled Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Photo: Kyodo

The NHK broadcaster added that a Chinese fighter jet approached Japanese air space around the uninhabited islands on the same day, prompting Japan’s Air Self-Defence Force to dispatch a flight. At the same time, a Chinese warship operating nearby went closer to the islands.

It was not clear if the Chinese forces’ actions were a direct response to the US exercises, NHK said. 

US military officials in Japan declined to comment on the exercise. Japan’s Defence Ministry also said it did not want to comment, beyond stating that “US forces regularly conduct exercises as necessary to fulfil the objectives of the Japan-US Security Treaty”.

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Nagy said the US exercise served as a message to both Tokyo and Beijing.

For Japan, the manoeuvres was a confidence-building measure that signalled Washington’s commitment to the US-Japan security treaty, which both sides have repeatedly said covers the Diaoyu Islands, he said.

The drill took place shortly before a meeting between the leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the Quad, which brings together the US, India and Australia with Japan.

It also preceded the mid-March visit to Tokyo by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin for talks with their Japanese counterparts, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi.

“The timing is important and was designed to show that US President Joe Biden’s administration is in favour of alliances and is back in the region,” Nagy said. 

The simultaneous message to Beijing was that the US was ready and willing to take action and was “determined to maintain its security presence and architecture in the region”. 

The Chinese response to the drills indicated there was a heightened possibility of an accidental clash between military units in the East China Sea, Nagy said.

Given the soaring tensions over territorial claims by China against many of its neighbours, any such clash may well escalate quickly, he added.