Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Joint military exercise in South China Sea reflects Japan's concern about Beijing

Manabu Sasaki, Asahi Shimbun
29 June 2015

PALAWAN ISLAND, Philippines – Tokyo’s growing partner in the field of security appeared impressed by the equipment of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force.
“We have radar, but they (MSDF) have advanced radar for search and rescue,” said Niccaben Ogoc, 37, a second petty officer of the Philippine Navy, during the countries’ first joint exercise using the MSDF’s P-3C patrol aircraft.
The joint exercise was held on June 23 and 24 in the South China Sea using an airport on Palawan Island in the western Philippines.
The location of the exercise indicated that Japan also wanted the P-3Cs to impress, or at least send a message to, another country.
“(The exercise) shows Japan’s strong concern about China,” a Japanese government official said.
China is currently building manmade islands in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in an apparent bid to strengthen its sovereignty claims over the isles, which are also claimed by the Philippines and other countries.
Japan has its own territorial issue with China, over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
The Abe administration, in tandem with the United States, is strengthening alliances around Asia, including the Philippines, in a bid to keep China in check.
During Diet deliberations on national security legislation in Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggested that Japan may dispatch the SDF to the South China Sea, but officials are split over such a scenario.
“In the East China Sea, Japan and the United States have been blocking China’s advances through integrated efforts,” a senior MSDF officer said. “The two countries must demonstrate close cooperation in the South China Sea as well.”
However, a high-ranking Defense Ministry official said such a dispatch would be “unrealistic” because the fleet of P-3Cs has been preoccupied with patrols around the Senkaku Islands to prevent Chinese ships from entering Japanese waters.
“We can hardly deploy our resources as far as to the South China Sea,” the official said.
In any event, the Philippines is looking to Japan and the United States as mentors.
Jonas Lumawag, colonel of the Philippine Naval Air Group, told reporters on Palawan Island that the Philippine military wants to develop relations with Japan’s SDF.
Under the scenario of the joint exercise, a fishing vessel sent out a distress call, P-3C patrol aircraft searched for it and conveyed information to vessels of the Philippine Navy.
Hiromi Hamano, an MSDF commander who led the Japanese contingent in the Philippines, emphasized that the purpose of the exercise “is search and rescue at the time of disasters.”
The roar of the P-3C engines echoed around the palm tree-surrounded airport on Palawan Island before departing to sea areas in the South China Sea about 80 kilometers to 180 km to the west. Several tens of kilometers further to the west are the Spratly Islands.
Ogoc sat behind the pilot in one of the P-3Cs and looked hard at the equipment.
He said the P-3C aircraft and the Philippine Navy’s patrol aircraft, Islander, are completely different in sophistication.
The Islander only has radar for weather observations, so its crew members would have had to use their own eyes to search for the vessel under the same scenario.
The Islander is 11 meters long and has a flight endurance of five-and-a-half hours. The P-3C is 36 meters long and can stay in the air for eight to 10 hours.
The P-3C also has radar covering a wide search area and has high capabilities to monitor submarines.
For the Philippines, Palawan Island is a stronghold to defend the Spratly Islands.
In April 2014, Manila strengthened its ties with Washington by concluding an agreement that effectively enables the U.S. military to station its troops in the Philippines again.

The Philippines also held a joint exercise with the U.S. military around the same time as the exercise with the MSDF. However, the location of the Philippine-U.S. exercise was in sea areas east of Palawan Island not facing the South China Sea.

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