Japan in Separate Drills With Russia, US

Japan in Separate Drills With Russia, US
Japan in Separate Drills With Russia, US

Japan began exercises Monday with the US Army in Hokkaido, a day after it started naval maneuvers with Russia 800 km away off the coast of Vladivostok.

The drills illustrate the balance Prime Minister Shinzo Abe must strike between his attempts to mend relations with Russia and the need to bolster his country’s alliance with the United States as a backstop to a more assertive China in the region, The Japan Times reported.

While Russia supplies about 10 percent of Japan’s natural gas needs, and potentially more, Japan has backed Group of Seven sanctions against Russia over the crisis in eastern Ukraine. That sparked recriminations from Russia and raised military tensions, with Japanese jets scrambling hundreds of times to head off approaches by Russian aircraft in the three months through June.

“What’s difficult for Japan is that the alliance with the US is the centerpiece of its security policy,” said Taisuke Abiru, a research fellow specializing in Russia at The Tokyo Foundation, a research group. “How can they maintain this alongside relations with Russia? This is an extremely important problem for Prime Minister Abe now.”

Abe had sought to strengthen ties with Russia until that country’s annexation of Crimea in March. He may use his first summit with President Vladimir Putin in nine months at November’s meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing to restart his diplomatic push.

The roar of F-15 fighter jets is almost constant at Japan’s most northerly air base in Chitose, Hokkaido, even though the number of approaches by Russian planes has fallen.

Air Self-Defense Force aircraft were scrambled 89 times to head off Russian planes in the quarter that ended in September, compared with 235 in April-June, the Defense Ministry said this month.

The Russian missions are probably a message aimed at the US, which has 38,000 military personnel in Japan, Abiru said.

The 12-day Operation Orient Shield, the US Army’s first maneuvering drill with the Ground Self-Defense Force in Hokkaido in four years, involves about 2,000 military personnel. The US sent Apache helicopters and Stryker combat vehicles.

Japan has separately dispatched the destroyer Hamagiri to Vladivostok for the first joint exercise since Crimea joined Russia. Even though US and Russian naval ties are frozen, Vice Adm. Robert Thomas, commander of the US Navy’s 7th Fleet, sees Japan’s exercises with Russia as a useful point of contact.

The Maritime Self-Defense Force acts as “an interlocutor while the 7th Fleet is on hold interacting with the Russian Federation Navy,” Thomas told reporters in Tokyo last week.

The row over ownership of the small Russian-held group of islands off Hokkaido has lingered since the Soviet Union ended a neutrality pact with Japan days before the end of World War II, invading the islands and expelling thousands of Japanese residents.

Pledging to resolve the dispute over the islands, Abe has held five summits with Putin since taking office in December 2012.