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Japan steps up vigilance as China exploits pandemic to expand maritime push

Amid the virus pandemic, China, North Korea and Russia are increasing their military pressure in the East Asia region including the periphery of Japan. China in particular is expanding its maritime advance as if exploiting the fact that U.S. military aircraft carriers are hamstrung by the infection of their crews with the new coronavirus. This has required the the Japanese government to step up its vigilance. The government tries to maintain security cooperation with various countries while taking measures against the further spread of the novel coronavirus.

 

Defense Minister Taro Kono criticized China during a press conference on April 24, “While countries across the world are taking steps in cooperation to contain the novel corona virus, moves to increase military pressure are totally unacceptable more now than any other time.” On the night of the same day, Kono spoke by phone with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Earlier on April 17, Kono also talked with French Defense Minister Florence Parly over the phone.

 

The two teleconferences were aimed at strengthening cooperation through sharing know-how to fight against the novel coronavirus. It seems that Kono also shared a concern about China’s maritime advance with not only the U.S. but also France as the country has overseas territories including New Caledonia in the Pacific region.

 

Chief of Staff Koji Yamazaki of the Self-Defense Forces’ Joint Staff, the highest ranking uniformed officer in Japan, held a teleconference on April 15 with his U.S. counterpart Gen. Mark Millie, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and exchanged opinions on China, which has stepped up its activities amid the spread of the novel coronavirus; North Korea, which repeatedly fires missiles; and moves of other countries on Japan’s periphery.

 

After sailing in the East China Sea on April 10 through and April 11, a Chinese fleet including the aircraft carrier “Liaoning” transited the Miyako Strait (between Okinawa’s main island and Miyako Island) in the high seas and entered the Pacific Ocean. Chief of Staff Hiroshi Yamamura of the Maritime Self-Defense Force said, “China demonstrated that its navy is unaffected by COVID-19 and is continuing its operations.”

 

Four Chinese navy vessels including a guided-missile destroyer transited the Miyako Strait on March 18. China has also repeatedly conducted flights with the potential to violate Japan’s airspace including four H6 bombers that flew over the strait on Feb. 9. Beijing is apparently aiming to tighten its grip on the country, test the U.S. military’s deterrent in East Asia while four of its aircraft carriers deal with COVID-19, as well as put pressure on the SDF.

 

North Korea fired ballistic missiles toward the Sea of Japan four times in March. On April 14, the DPRK fired surface-to-ship cruise missiles. The missiles apparently flew less than 200 km. Judging from their short range, the Japanese government assumes that the missiles are intended to target South Korea and the U.S. Forces Korea. As North Korea is obviously improving its technology, it poses a threat to Japan as well.

 

Russia also continues its military activities. On March 24, Russia’s state-of-the art fighters and bombers flew over the Sea of Japan. In April, the country repeatedly conducted that had the potential to violate Japan’s airspace.

 

In response, the SDF and the U.S. military intend to prevent COVID-19 from affecting their vigilance and measures to respond to a contingency. On April 22, the ASDF and the U.S. Air Force conducted joint flight training over the Sea of Japan and the Okinawa islands. On April 10 and 11, the same days when the Chinese aircraft carrier operated in the East China Sea, a U.S. navy destroyer sailed through waters  in the sensitive Taiwan Strait near China. “The U.S. and China are apparently demonstrating  to each other their military presence,” said a senior defense ministry official.

 

A senior SDF official warned, “While Japan is desperately responding to COVID-19, we should not forget that countries in the region continue to put pressure on Japan.”

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