TOKYO – US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter kicked off his first Asian tour yesterday with a stern warning against the militarization of territorial rows in a region where China is at odds with several nations in the East and South China Seas.
Carter’s visit to Japan coincides with growing US concern over China’s land reclamation in the Spratlys.
Japan and China have a separate row over Japanese-controlled islets in the East China Sea.
US and Filipino troops will take part in annual military exercises this month near the Spratlys in the largest such drills since the allies resumed joint activities in 2000.
Asked whether the beefed up US-Philippine exercises were a response to China’s moves, Carter said the US and the Philippines had shared interests in the region, including a desire to ensure no changes in the status quo take effect through force or that territorial rows were militarized.
“We take a strong stance against the militarization of these disputes,” Carter told a news conference after talks with his Japanese counterpart, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani.
Chinese reclamation work is well advanced on six reefs in the Spratlys, according to recently published satellite photographs and Filipino officials.
In addition, the Philippines has said Chinese dredgers had started reclaiming a seventh.
Chinese workers are building ports and fuel storage depots, as well as possibly two airstrips that experts believe would allow China to project power deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.
US Pacific Fleet commander Harry Harris told an Australian think tank last week that China was using dredges and bulldozers to create a “great wall of sand” in the South China Sea.
China claims most of the potentially energy rich waterway, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.
Tighter alliance ties
Carter also welcomed progress toward the first update in US-Japan defense cooperation guidelines since 1997, a revision that will expand the scope for interaction between the allies in line with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to ease the constraints of Japan’s pacifist constitution on the nation’s military.
“It’s going to give first of all Japan, but also our alliance, much greater scope to provide security in the region, and for that matter elsewhere outside of the region,” Carter said as the talks began.
Abe’s move to allow Japan to come to the aid of an ally under attack would pave the way for closer cooperation between US and Japanese forces across Asia, Admiral Robert Thomas, commander of the US Seventh Fleet, said last month.
In January, Thomas said the US would also welcome Japanese air patrols in the South China Sea.
Nakatani told the news conference with Carter, however, that the new guidelines did not target any particular region, including the South China Sea.
In a written interview with Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper published yesterday, Carter expressed concern about China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea.
“We are especially concerned at the prospect of militarization of these outposts,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.
“These activities seriously increase tensions and reduce prospects for diplomatic solutions. We urge China to limit its activities and exercise restraint to improve regional trust.”
Carter also repeated US opposition to any “coercive unilateral” actions by China to undermine Japan’s administrative control of disputed islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, in the East China Sea.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing in Beijing: “We hope the US side can respect the wishes of China and relevant countries to resolve the problem via dialogue, say more responsible things and make more responsible moves, so it can genuinely play a constructive role in maintaining regional peace and stability.”
Abe’s government plans to submit bills to parliament in the coming months to ratify his Cabinet’s decision last year to allow Japan to exercise its right of collective self-defense, the biggest shift in Japanese security policy in decades.
Carter, Nakatani and the two countries’ foreign ministers are expected to unveil the new defense guidelines in late April, before Abe meets US President Barack Obama on April 28 for a summit in Washington.
Balikatan 2015 starts
Filipino and US soldiers started on Tuesday the Balikatan Exercise 2015 in Panay at Camp Peralta in Jamindan, Capiz, home of the Philippine Army’s 3rd Infantry Division.
The 20-day Balikatan began with Basic First Responders Training, where 105 participants will be trained on basic life support, primary medical care, rescue procedures and mass evacuation simulation.
Of the 105 participants, 82 are soldiers from the 3rd ID, 13 reservists from the 6th Regional Community Defense Group (RCDG) and 10 personnel from the Capiz Provincial Risk Reduction and Management Council.
The US Cooperative Health Engagement Team under Capt. Jennifer Brown, a medical doctor in the US Army, led the four-day training.
Maj. Ray Tiongson, 3rd ID spokesman, said one of the objectives of the training is to promote and enhance the capabilities of the Philippine and US Armed Forces in terms of humanitarian and civic assistance during disasters and calamities.
Lt. Cmdr. Catherine Eyrich, head of US Joint Civil-Military Operations Task Force for Balikatan Exercise in Panay, said the joint exercise aims to continue the active military-to-military partnership between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the US military.
Succeeding activities for Balikatan in Panay include a barangay health seminar in which residents of Tapaz, Capiz would participate.
A civil-military operations exchange seminar will also be held at Camp Peralta for 3rd ID personnel, as well as a humanitarian assistance and disaster response seminar.
Maj. Gen. Rey Leonardo Guerrero, 3rd ID commander, told participants that they will surely appreciate the training when calamities strike.
Their role is to assist local governments in disaster rescue, relief, recovery and rehabilitation efforts, he added.
The Phl-US Balikatan 2015 is a partnership program between the AFP and the US Pacific Command.
Part of the Balikatan program is the construction of a new modified Department of Education one unit-two-classroom building.
Curfew for US troops
US military officials have enforced a curfew for US servicemen taking part in this year’s Balikatan military exercises.
US Marine Capt. Alex Lim, US-Balikatan deputy public affairs chief, said all US servicemen will have 10 p.m. to early morning curfew and will only be allowed to get meals near their designated areas of deployment.
“Nobody will be allowed to go bar-hopping and engage in beer drinking,” he said.
Liberty policy will apply to all servicemen taking part in the joint military drill between Filipino and US troops, he added.
Another US military officer privy to the planning of this year’s joint military exercises said US servicemen will only be allowed to get off their vessels while at port to get a meal and must be back before the 10 p.m. curfew.
US servicemen on ground exercise duties are also required to be back at their bunkers or tents not later than 10 p.m., the officer added. – Reuters, Jennifer Rendon, Jaime Laude