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British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and its strike group. Photo: Twitter

Japan and Britain send ‘symbolic message’ to China with joint naval drills near disputed islands

  • ‘Japan based its security almost entirely on the US, but it has now decided it needs to supplement – although not replace – that relationship,’ expert says
  • The British carrier group, led by the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, will conduct further training with South Korean naval and air units next week

A Royal Navy task force headed by aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth held its first naval drill earlier this week with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force off Okinawa, as part of Britain’s bid to join the US and its allies in an expanded role in Indo-Pacific security.

The exercise involved the aircraft carrier and HMS Defender and HMS Kent, accompanied by the Dutch warship HNLMS Evertsen, the USS The Sullivans and USS New Orleans as well as the Japanese destroyer Asahi.

Tuesday’s exercise involved British and US F-35 stealth fighters taking off from the deck of the 64,000 ton aircraft carrier and cross-deck training utilising British helicopters and US Osprey transport aircraft.

Rear Admiral Yasushige Konno said it was “very meaningful” to take part in a joint exercise with nations that have already deployed the F-35 fighter. The US and Britain are the only nations using the aircraft, although Japan has bought a number of the state-of-the-art fighters and eventually intends to operate 42 of the F-35B, which has vertical take-off capability and will likely be aboard Japan’s upgraded Izumo light carrier.

“It is essential to strengthen cooperation with countries that share universal values, regardless of geographical distance,” Konno said.

Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor of international relations at Tokyo’s Waseda University, highlighted the location of the drills – in waters between the Japanese mainland and the self-ruled island of Taiwan – “not far from the Diaoyu Islands and within reasonable distance of the South China Sea”.
China claims the Diaoyu Islands but they are administered by Japan, which calls them the Senkakus.

“It’s all very symbolic and is designed to communicate a message to China about the security alliance that Tokyo is building with other countries, both in the region and further afield,” Shigemura said.

“For Japan, the return of the British military to the Far East is very significant as it harks back to the strong alliance between the UK and Japan during the Meiji era,” he said, referring to the period between 1868 and 1912 when Japan transformed from a feudal state into an advanced industrial nation with allies around the world.

HMS Queen Elizabeth left Portsmouth on May 24 and took part in exercises with Nato partners in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. The fleet completed passage into the Indian Ocean in early July for drills with the Indian Navy before passing Singapore and entering the South China Sea for freedom of navigation drills with US warships.

The British fleet docked in Guam prior to the exercises with Japan and will later take part in Exercise Bersa Lima 21 with ships from Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore before completing its seven-month deployment.

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James Brown, an associate professor of international relations at the Tokyo campus of Temple University, agreed the site selected for the drills was “unlikely to be a coincidence”.

“The principle concern for the UK is the South China Sea and obviously Okinawa is the closest part of Japan to that area, but there is also the logistics situation to take into account and the US has the bulk of its bases on Okinawa as well,” he said.

“From the Japanese perspective, this is all part of the broader development of national security policy. Until relatively recently, Japan based its security almost entirely on the US, but it has now decided it needs to supplement – although not replace – that relationship.

“Australia may be the No 1 like-minded country in the region, but exercises such as this underline just how much effort Japan is putting into building up its security ties with European countries.”

Brown said the Chinese military was likely watching the exercises closely.

“They will be using everything they have to watch what is going on,” he said. “I would be astonished if they were not doing everything they can to keep tabs on what is happening.”

China’s response has been muted.

The HMS Artful, a nuclear-powered fleet submarine, docked at the naval base in Busan. Photo: dpa

“China always holds that military cooperation between countries should not undermine regional peace and stability, or the interests of a third party,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Wednesday.

Brown said Chinese submarines will likely track the movements of the carrier group, although Beijing has previously dismissed reports the British fleet detected at least one Chinese submarine stalking it earlier in its voyage through the western Pacific. Beijing dismissed the report as “not credible”.

The British strike group is scheduled to conduct training with South Korean naval and air units next week, although a planned port visit to Busan has been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The exercises will take place from Monday to Wednesday and focus on training for humanitarian and disaster relief activities. HMS Artful, a nuclear-powered submarine, docked in Busan on August 11 to take on supplies.

North Korea is unlikely to welcome the British-South Korean drills. Pyongyang on Thursday condemned recent joint US-South Korean military exercises, describing the annual table-top drills as “dangerously playing with fire”.

HMS Queen Elizabeth and the other vessels in the fleet are due to dock at the Japanese naval base at Yokosuka, southwest of Tokyo, in early September. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary Fort Victoria has already pulled in at the port, which is used by both US and Japanese naval forces.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Tokyo ‘sends message’ with joint drill