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US-China tensions

US pledges to help Japan with 'unprecedented' Chinese incursions

Top commander sees Beijing's expansion in East China Sea as part of global challenge

The Avenger-class mine countermeasure ship USS Chief transits the East China Sea in front of Mt. Iodake in Japan's Kagoshima Prefecture. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

TOKYO -- The U.S. is fully committed to help Tokyo handle China's repeated incursions into waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands, the commander of American forces in Japan said Wednesday.

"The United States is 100% absolutely steadfast in its commitment to help the government of Japan with the situation," Lt. Gen. Kevin Schneider, the highest-ranking U.S. military officer in Japan, said in an online news conference. "That's 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Chinese government vessels have sailed into the contiguous zone of the Japanese-administered Senkakus -- an East China Sea island chain that Beijing claims as the Diaoyu -- for more than 100 straight days. Schneider called the situation "unprecedented."

Chinese ships usually "would go in and out a couple of times a month, and now we are seeing them basically park and truly challenge Japan's administration," he said.

"The duration of the incursions is beyond anything that we've seen in a long, long time," he said.

Washington acknowledges that Japan administers the islands and has repeatedly said that the Senkaku Islands are covered by Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, which commits the U.S. to defend aggression against territories under Japanese administration.

But the U.S. has also said that it is neutral on the question of sovereignty, and for the most part has stayed away from the daily tensions between Japan and China in the waters.

Schneider's expression of explicit U.S. support is rare, and comes ahead of the end of a Chinese seasonal fishing ban scheduled for mid-August. Four years ago as many as 230 Chinese ships gathered around the Senkakus -- both fishing ships and Chinese Coast Guard vessels -- with some entering Japanese territorial waters.

He said that the U.S. was offering Japan surveillance and reconnaissance assistance to assess the situation.

A tactical action officer stands watch in the combat information center aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Germantown in the East China Sea. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

It comes a day after the U.S. and Australia pledged to forge a "network of nations" to check China, and also after the joint rejection by Washington and Canberra of Beijing's maritime claims in the South China Sea, where the People's Liberation Army is currently conducting live-fire drills.

In the South China Sea, the "nine-dash line" area claimed by Beijing overlaps the United Nations-mandated exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. 

Since the U.S. State Department formally rejected China's claims to the nine-dash line earlier this month, the U.S. Navy has upped the ante by conducting trilateral naval drills with Japan and Australia, as well as bilateral exercises with India. There are reports that the four countries-- all part of the informal Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad -- could formulate a formal joint military coalition soon. 

In line with the U.S.-Australian "two plus two" meeting Tuesday between the U.S. secretaries of state and defense and Australia's foreign and defense ministers, Lt. Gen. Schneider also urged multilateral cooperation to curb Beijing's expansion in the East and South China seas. Reflecting Washington's toughening stance against the Chinese Communist Party, he said the maritime activity was not a U.S.-China dispute, but rather a matter of China against the world.

Regarding Japan's decision to suspend its deployment of the U.S.-developed Aegis Ashore missile shield, Schneider stressed that Washington will continue working closely with Tokyo regardless of what it decides or what equipment it purchases.

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