Japan, the United States and South Korea have been forging closer defense cooperation to counter China’s growing military might and threats from North Korea.
Japan and the United States held a regular computer-simulated military exercise named "Yama Sakura" at the Ground Self-Defense Force’s Camp Itami in Hyogo Prefecture from Jan. 24 to Feb. 6.
The “Blue Army” of Japan-U.S. forces tried to repel the “Red Army,” a virtual enemy that landed on an unspecified location in Japan to invade the nation, according to military sources.
The U.S. Eighth Army, the main element of U.S. forces based in South Korea, took part in the exercise for the first time and served as the U.S. Army headquarters, the sources said.
The Eighth Army’s primary mission is to defend South Korea from possible attacks from North Korea. But the United States sent the unit to Japan as part of its efforts to counter China by rallying U.S. forces stationed in Asia and its allies, Japanese officials and experts said.
The latest Yama Sakura exercise was the 61st time it was held since it was inaugurated in 1982. The U.S. military sent 1,500 members, with 150 from South Korea.
In late January, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the United States plans to maintain its forces in Asia and the Pacific, although it will slash $259 billion (20 trillion yen) in defense spending over five years.
Last year, the U.S. forces based in South Korea began sending its members to exercises in other parts of Asia. Its troops were already sent to the Philippines and Thailand for joint exercises.
According to separate military sources, the U.S. Pacific Command has repeatedly told the Japanese and South Korean governments that tripartite defense cooperation should form the centerpiece of their strategy against China.
“Japan and South Korea are the only countries in this region that are capable of carrying out operations with the U.S. military,” a Japanese government official said.
The build-up of defense cooperation among the three countries is also intended to guard against North Korea, where Kim Jong Un has just succeeded Kim Jong Il, his father, as ruler of the communist nation.
The United States took the initiative in starting discussions on tripartite defense cooperation at the end of the 1990s, when it became possible for the Self-Defense Forces to play a part in the event of an emergency on the Korean Peninsula after revisions to the Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines.
Tripartite defense cooperation got into full swing after Lee Myung-bak became South Korean president in 2008.
In 2010, South Korea sent troops to a Japan-U.S exercise as observers, and Japan also sent SDF observers to a U.S.-South Korean exercise, after North Korea’s military provocations against South Korea.
In January 2011, Japan and South Korea agreed on the need for a General Security of Military Information Agreement to protect confidential information and an Acquisition and Cross-Serving Agreement to supply fuel and parts in joint training and U.N. peacekeeping operations.
The information security agreement is essential if Japan is to receive military information from South Korea in the event of an emergency on the Korean Peninsula.
Thorny history issues have hampered tripartite defense cooperation, however.
The South Korean military decided not to send observers to the latest Yama Sakura exercise after a row resurfaced late last year over Japan’s compensation for Korean women forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers during World War II.
South Korean defense minister Kim Kwan-jin also postponed his visit to Japan originally scheduled at the end of January.
In addition, many South Korean government officials are cautious about strengthening defense cooperation with the United States and Japan out of consideration to China.
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