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article imageJapan joins U.S. maneuvers in Pacific as tensions with China rise

By Nathan Salant     May 26, 2015 in World
Sydney - Japan will send dozens of soldiers to join U.S.-Australia military exercises in the South Pacific for the first time ever in an apparent signal to Beijing to scale back expansion in the South China Sea.
Tensions have been building in the region since China began building artificial islands, including a military airstrip, in the Spratly Islands off the coast of Vietnam.
The United States fears a possible military buildup, and nations in the strategic region — most of them U.S. alies — are concerned about Chinese domination and, possibly, eventual interference with free navigation and shipping by sea and air.
"We're cooperating trilaterally with Japan and Australia to strengthen maritime security in Southeast Asia and explore defense technology cooperation," Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear told the U.S. Senate earlier this month, according to the Reuters news service.
Only a few dozen Japanese soldiers and officers are expected to join the Talisman Sabre military maneuvers with tens of thousands of U.S. and Australian troops this summer, but experts said the move demonstrates Washington's desire to increase cooperation among its allies in Asia.
"There is an obvious symmetry between Japan as the upper anchor of the Western Pacific alliance and ... Australia as the southern anchor," Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney told Reuters.
"I think the U.S. is trying to get its allies to do more," Graham said.
The biennial Talisman Sabre exercises practice maritime operations, amphibious landings, special forces and urban warfare, Reuters said.
OVERLAPPING: The United States may be called upon to help several Southeast Asian nations settle com...
OVERLAPPING: The United States may be called upon to help several Southeast Asian nations settle competing claims over islands in the South China Sea.
CIA / Wikimieda Commons
The Japanese troops are expected to embed with U.S. forces while some 500 New Zealand troops are expected to accompany Australian forces.
Both sides were quick to deny this week that the expanded exercises have anything to do with growing tensions in the region.
Japan's defense minister, Gen Nakatani, told Reuters that his country was interested only in better military cooperation, and China's foreign ministry said through a spokeswoman that it was "not worried."
"We believe the relevant countries should all play a proactive and constructive role to strengthen mutual trust and cooperation between countries in the region," the spokeswoman, Hua Chunyingshe, said at a regularly scheduled news briefing.
But many security experts have expressed concern about Chinese intentions after their construction projects are completed.
China contends that it has the right to set up an air defense zone in the South China Sea if it should decide in the future that it needs one.
China does claim most of the South China Sea as territorial waters, but the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims to the territory, Reuters said.
Security cooperation between Australia and Japan has been growing in recent years, encouraged by the United States, Reuters said.
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