HAGATNA, Guam (AP) — The U.S., the U.K. and Japan are joining a French-led amphibious exercise at remote U.S. islands in the Pacific over the next week. Participants said they are showing support for the free passage of vessels in international waters, an issue that has come to the fore amid fears China could restrict movement in the South China Sea.
The drills around Guam and Tinian may also get the attention of nearby North Korea. Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea spiked last month after Pyongyang launched a ballistic missile and the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier strike group to the region.
The drills will practice amphibious landings, delivering forces by helicopter and urban patrols.
Two ships from France are participating, both of which are in the middle of a four-month deployment to the Indian and Pacific oceans. Joining are U.K. helicopters and 70 U.K. troops deployed with the French amphibious assault ship FS Mistral. Parts of the exercise will feature British helicopters taking U.S. Marines ashore from a French ship.
"The message we want to send is that we're always ready to train and we're always ready for the next crisis and humanitarian disaster wherever that may be," said U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col Kemper Jones, the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. Approximately 100 Marines from Jones' unit will be part of the drills slated for this weekend and next week.
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea and has aggressively tried to fortify its foothold in recent years by transforming seven mostly submerged reefs into island outposts, some with runways and radars and — more recently — weapons systems. This has prompted criticism from other nations, who also claim the atolls, and from the United States, which insists on freedom of navigation in international waters.
Critics fear China's actions could restrict movement in a key waterway for world trade and rich fishing grounds.
China said its island construction is mainly for civilian purposes, particularly to increase safety for ships. It has said it won't interfere with freedom of navigation or overflight, although questions remain on whether that includes military ships and aircraft.
Mira Rapp-Hooper of the Center for New American Security, a Washington think tank, said the exercises will send a strong message in support of a "rules-based order in Asia" at a time when China's actions have raised questions about this.
"A reminder in this exercise is that lots of other countries besides the United States have an interest in that international order," said Rapp-Hooper, who is a senior fellow with the center's Asia-Pacific Security Program.