With little fanfare, U.S. commanders have been pouring in thousands of new troops, deploying powerful new war machines and ramping up training with allies from across the region.
Most of this is due to the “rebalancing” of U.S. forces announced more than a year ago. But the buildup seems to be hitting full-stride just as the standoff between Japan and China reaches a dangerous new low.
Japanese authorities bitterly protested this week after they said a Chinese warship locked its weapons-guidance radar on a Japanese destroyer in late January. The incident occurred in international waters near a group of disputed islands. That followed the targeting of a Japanese naval helicopter in the same region two weeks earlier.
No shots were fired in either incident, but Japan accused China’s leaders of intentionally escalating the crisis. China’s Defense Ministry said late Friday that Japan’s version of events “does not match the facts.”
Some officers with the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) say privately that Chinese ship commanders may have simply over-reacted under close Japanese surveillance. Turning on a weapons-guidance radar is tantamount to aiming a gun or missile at an adversary.
“If this is directed from Beijing, then it does signal a deliberate escalation, which is worrisome,” says Jeffrey Hornung, associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, in Honolulu. “But if this is some Chinese seaman acting alone, that is worrisome, too, because it signals a serious breakdown in command. It leaves us wondering, ‘What will that person do next?’”
In truth, it would be hard to blame the Chinese if they were getting nervous.
The U.S. Marines have sent two additional infantry battalions – nearly 2,000 troops – to Okinawa in just the last six weeks. Another battalion is tentatively scheduled to arrive this summer. Altogether, more than 17,000 Marines are now based on Okinawa, the most in more than a decade.
A small squadron of EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare planes arrived at the Marine base in Iwakuni, Japan, on February 1, as well, reinforcing F/A-18 fighters there. Prowlers are designed to attack radar and surveillance installations and jam enemy transmissions, a useful capability when push comes to shove.
The Navy is joining the party, too, sending a newly upgraded guided-missile cruiser to replace a less-capable ship with the U.S. 7th Fleet, based near Tokyo. The USS Antietam formally took over from the USS Cowpens this week in what is called a “hull swap.” The Antietam gives the Navy, which operates hand-in-glove with the JMSDF, a more sophisticated air defense capability, particularly against ballistic missiles.
“The Cowpens and Antietam hull swap is part of the Navy’s long-range plan to upgrade the guided-missile cruiser class of ships and to put the most capable U.S. forces in this region,” Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, commander of Battle Force 7th Fleet, said at a ceremony this week.
Meanwhile, at least three major joint exercises are underway in the neighborhood. Aircraft from the United States, Japan and Australia are training to operate together in wartime missions and humanitarian or disaster relief operations in the “Cope North” drills in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. The exercise includes fighter planes, bombers, aerial tankers, transports and cargo planes. Aussies are taking part for the first time, and an observer team from South Korea – a U.S. ally that is embroiled in a unrelated islands dispute with Japan – agreed to send an observer team, also for the first time.
On Monday, several hundred Okinawa-based Marines based will start training on Guam for rapid-response missions throughout the region.
And farther west, more than 13,000 troops from the United States, Japan and five other countries will take part in the annual “Cobra Gold” exercises in Thailand, which also start Monday. It will include command post exercises, amphibious assault and jungle warfare training, small boat and helicopter raids, and non-combatant evacuation drills. South Korea will be a full participant for the first time.
Though long-planned, all three exercises are taking on added significance because of China’s growing military power and assertive territorial demands.
The confrontation over the Senkaku Islands, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu, initially was limited to Japan Coast Guard vessels and China’s quasi-government maritime surveillance craft. Japan began scrambling F-15 fighters in mid-December in response to incursions from Chinese maritime surveillance planes, but warships from both the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and JMSDF so far have steered clear of the islands.
In the January 30 incident, according to the Japanese, a PLAN frigate turned its targeting radar on the JS Yudachi, a multi-purpose destroyer armed with missiles, torpedoes and rapid-firing guns. Though Japan’s Constitution nominally renounces war, Japan has one of the world’s most capable navies — built largely around destroyers like the Yudachi.
The two ships were about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of the Senkakus and were separated by less than two miles when the Chinese ship reportedly turned on its targeting radar. That generally sets off alarm signals on a targeted ship or aircraft, and can be used as an intimidation tactic. No shots were fired and the two ships separated with no further harm.
By treaty, the U.S. is obligated to defend Japan if it comes under attack.