WASHINGTON — The Navy’s Ronald Reagan Strike Group joined with a defense flotilla of Japan to conduct joint military exercises in the South China Sea, the latest show of freedom of navigation resolve in the contested waters.
During the training earlier this week, units from the two maritime forces “sailed in formation, participated in replenishment-at-sea training, exchanged Naval Liaison Officers and practiced maneuvering procedures,” the Navy said in a news release.
“Training with Escort Flotilla 4 was a fantastic opportunity to bring together our strike group with the JMSDF battle group (the Japanese naval flotilla) and further the interoperability we have been building for years between our forces,” Rear Adm. Karl O. Thomas, Commander, Task Force 70, said in the release.
The South China Sea is a highly contested area in the wake of China’s occupation and militarization of natural islands as well as islands it has constructed. The U.S. and other nations have increased their air and sea presence in the region to underscore what the Pentagon says are international freedom of navigation rights.
“We take every opportunity to train with our allies and partners,” Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Christopher Logan told TMN. “Training events such as this helps to increase the interoperability between our forces and strengthens our alliance with Japan. This bilateral training is a pre-planned part of the strike group’s operations in the region.”
The sea drills with Japanese elements came a few days after Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bombers flew through the contested region.
Last spring, Japan commissioned a specialized marine detachment for amphibious warfare unit of its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) — its first since World War II — in response to escalation concerns about China’s military advances in the East China Sea. On Aug. 29, Japan scrambled fighter jets to intercept a Chinese spy plane entering the Sea of Japan, the third time that has occurred this year.
In August, the Chinese navy conducted exercises in the East China Sea with an eye to Japan as a potential combatant.