The UK and Japan are carrying out their first joint military exercise in the latter country, as both look for ways to counter China’s growing influence in the region.
Soldiers from Britain’s Honourable Artillery Company are at a training camp near Mt. Fuji in Japan, where they are drilling with troops from Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force during Exercise Vigilant Isles.
The exercise started with a joint rapid-reaction helicopter drill and will continue for two weeks in Ojijihara, north of Sendai on Honshu, which is Japan’s largest island.
Japanese and British soldiers will be deployed to a rural training area there for drills focused on sharing tactics and surveillance techniques, according to The Telegraph.
Japanese forces have carried out joint drills with the British navy and air force, “but this is the first time anyone in the regiment or indeed the British army has had the opportunity to train alongside the Japanese Ground Self Defence Force,” said Lt. Col. Mark Wood, the commander of the HAC.
“There’s always a commonality with soldiers — equipment, interest in each other’s weapons, each other’s rations — so I think that always gives any soldier a basis for a discussion, a common point,” Lance Sgt. Liam Magee told the British Forces Network.
The exercise comes roughly a year after British Prime Minister Theresa May visited Japan to discuss trade and defense issues. During that trip, May toured Japan’s largest warship and became the first European leader to sit in on a meeting of Japan’s National Security Council.
The two countries released a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation, in which they pledged to enhance cooperation in a number of areas, including military exercises. May also said three times that the countries were “natural partners,” and “each other’s closest security partners in Asia and Europe.”
The UK has in recent months also taken a more active approach to countering China, whose growing influence and assertiveness in the region has put it at odds with many of its neighbors.
A British warship sailed through the South China Sea in March, and British ships accompanied French vessels through the area this summer. At the end of August, a British ship had a close encounter with Chinese frigate as it sailed near the Chinese-occupied Paracel Islands.
In Japan, which is also watching China warily, Abe’s hawkish government has made a number of moves on sea and land to build military capacity.
The country’s 2017 military budget was its largest ever, and this year saw the Ground Self-Defense Force’s largest reorganization since 1954. Japan’s military has also said it would raise the maximum age for new recruits from 26 to 32 to ensure “a stable supply” of personnel. The force is also looking to bring in more women.
Earlier this year, Tokyo activated an elite Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade for the first time since World War II, and it has carried out several exercises already this year.
Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships joined a US carrier strike group for drills in the South China Sea at the end of August, and September saw a Japanese submarine join surface ships for an exercise in the same area — Japan’s first sub deployment to the contested region.
Tokyo has made moves farther afield to counter China as well.
Japan’s largest warship, the Kaga helicopter carrier, sailed into Sri Lanka’s Colombo harbor this weekend. Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean region in general have been targets for Chinese outreach that many see as an effort to gain leverage over neighbors.