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Japan, South Korea, and U.S. Begin Drills off North Korea

Japan, South Korea, and U.S. Begin Drills off North Korea

On Tuesday, one day before U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson begins his first visit to Asia, warships from the United States, Japan, and South Korea began two days of drills to better be able to respond to ballistic missiles.

The drills, among three Aegis-equipped ships that can intercept ballistic missiles in flight, come hard on the heels of last week’s North Korean missile launch into the Sea of Japan. They also follow the deployment last week of the first parts of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile-defense system to South Korea.

Together, the deployments and the drills have raised temperatures in the region, prompting harsh language from Beijing and Pyongyang and promising to make Tillerson’s Asian tour particularly interesting. He will visit Japan, South Korea, and China.

China’s foreign ministry took all sides to task on Tuesday. “On the one hand, the DPRK insists on advancing its nuclear and missile programs in violation of UN Security Council resolutions; on the other hand, the US, the ROK and Japan are conducting large-scale military exercises,” a spokesman said.

“This is a vicious circle and an upward spiral of tensions. It will do no good to any country,” he said.

North Korea, for its part, also lashed out at the exercises, threatening “merciless, ultra-precision strikes” if its sovereignty is impinged.

The missile defense exercises showcase not just tactical cooperation among Aegis-equipped ships — the more ships that work together, the better they should be able to track and shoot down incoming missiles — but also warmer ties between two U.S. allies often at loggerheads with each other, Japan and South Korea.

And it’s part and parcel of Japan’s naval forces playing a bigger part in the region. This week, it was reported that Tokyo will send its biggest warship on a three-month cruise through the disputed waters of the South China Sea, before joining U.S. and Indian forces for maneuvers. Japan isn’t contesting the South China Sea, but has said it wants to preserve freedom of navigation there (and perhaps wants to send a message to China regarding the East China Sea, where there are islands to which both countries lay claim).

The Chinese foreign ministry said a “normal visit” by Japanese ships is fine.

But if going to the South China Sea has different intentions, then that’s a different matter.”

Photo credit: KIM WON-JIN/AFP/Getty Images