Japan to conduct island defense drill amid tension with China

TOKYO Thu May 1, 2014 6:07am EDT

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan will conduct a military exercise this month to practice defending an island, the Defense Ministry said on Thursday, underscoring concern about East China Sea islands controlled by Japan but claimed by China.

The dispute over the islands, called the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, has raised fears of a clash between the Asian neighbors which could even drag in the United States.

Separately, China said on Wednesday it would carry out naval exercises with Russia in the East China Sea in what it called a bid to deepen military cooperation.

Japan's Defense Ministry said the island defense exercise would run from May 10 to May 27 on a small uninhabited island in the Ryukyu chain, some 600 km (375 miles) northeast of the disputed isles.

Some parts of the exercise will be held in southwestern Japan's Nagasaki prefecture and waters off Okinawa Island's east coast. Okinawa is home is a major U.S. military base and Japan also bases forces there.

It will be the first time that Japan's military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, will use an actual island for island defense training involving its ground, air and maritime divisions.

About 1,300 troops, as well as several fighter jets and destroyers, will practice landing on and retaking the island, the ministry said.

But it said the exercise was not a response to the tension with China.

"Boosting island defense is something that has been mentioned in the defense white paper in recent years. This is not a drill that is responding to the current security situation surrounding Japan," a ministry spokesman said.

U.S. President Barack Obama said last month while on a visit to Japan that the disputed islands were covered by a U.S.-Japan security treaty, angering China.

Last month, Japan announced it would break ground on a radar base in the area, on a tropical Japanese island close to Taiwan.

The radar station on Yonaguni Island, just 150 km (93 miles) from the disputed islands in the East China Sea, marks Japan's first military expansion at the western end of its island chain in more than 40 years.

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Robert Birsel)