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International relations

US-Japan military drills go on despite virus, with eye on China

Allies also seek to conduct international RIMPAC exercise in August

U.S. soldiers wearing protective face masks are seen during a military drill at Yokota U.S. Air Force Base in Fussa, Japan.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- The coronavirus has not stopped the U.S. and Japan from holding joint military exercises, as the allies keep watch on China's increasingly assertive maritime maneuvers in the East and South China seas amid the pandemic.

Two U.S. Air Force B-1 bombers and 16 F-15 and F-2 fighters from Japan's Air Self-Defense Force held joint drills over the Sea of Japan and around Okinawa on Wednesday.

"These are very important as we further strengthen the deterrence and capabilities of Japan and the U.S. acting jointly," said Gen. Yoshinari Marumo, chief of staff for the Air Self-Defense Force.

The latest joint exercise was the third since April.

"This mission is a demonstration ... that we have the ability to operate from numerous locations across the globe, even during the global pandemic," Gen. Tim Ray, commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command, said after a drill in late April during which a B-1 flew to Japan from the contiguous U.S. and teamed with Japanese fighter jets.

The allies also seek to hold the Rim of the Pacific international maritime warfare exercise hosted biennially by the U.S. Navy, despite concerns that the event will be canceled due to the coronavirus. Plans call for holding RIMPAC in August at a smaller scale and shorter duration that usual.

"This will contribute to the realization of a free and open Indo-Pacific," said Adm. Hiroshi Yamamura, chief of staff of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force.

The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt departed the South China Sea region weeks ago due to a coronavirus outbreak aboard ship, and infections have occurred on other American naval vessels. Chinese maritime operations have continued even after the virus spread, fueling concern in the U.S. and Japan about East Asian security.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea as territorial waters, from its coastline out to the "nine-dash line" demarcated by Beijing. This has enormous international implications because of the oil, natural gas and merchant trade in the region, according to retired U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis. China steadfastly maintains its claims despite losing an international arbitration case and facing resistance from littoral nations -- notably Vietnam and the Philippines, he added.

In the East China Sea, official Chinese vessels sailed in Japan's contiguous zone around the Senkaku Islands -- administered by Tokyo and claimed by Beijing -- 289 times during the January-March period, up 60% on the year, the Japan Coast Guard has said.

And in April, six Chinese ships including the aircraft carrier Liaoning sailed through waters between Okinawa's main island and Miyako Island -- and returned by the same route -- for the first time.

Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono talked separately by phone and videoconference with 12 foreign counterparts in April and May, including those from the Group of Seven nations and countries bordering Japan's sea lanes.

"Japan is strongly opposed to attempts to unilaterally change the status quo with force," Kono told his counterparts, referring to China without naming it.

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