ABOARD THE USS RONALD REAGAN • The United States and Japanese navies established a new level of cooperation to resupply each other's vessels during joint exercises in the seas south of Japan last week, the commander of the US Seventh Fleet said yesterday.
Vice-Admiral Joseph Aucoin said the delivery of boxes of food and other provisions to a Japanese warship by a US helicopter heralded greater operational integration.
It was the first time that the two allies have shared supplies other than ship oil at sea.
"It's a big step forward, and we want to do more of that in the future," Vice-Adm Aucoin said at a press conference aboard the USS Ronald Reagan.
The US aircraft carrier participated in the annual exercise along with six other US ships and about 25 Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) vessels.
The agreement to begin such exchanges means that US vessels can now be resupplied by Japanese ships in waters closer to Japan and will make it easier for the JMSDF to operate farther from home waters with the help of US supply ships.
The Japanese and US navies are deepening already-close military ties as Chinese military power in the region grows.
Vice-Admiral Yasuhiro Shigeoka, commander of the JMSDF fleet, who joined Vice-Adm Aucoin at the briefing, described the security situation in the region surrounding Japan as "severe".
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won lawmakers' approval in September for new security legislation that allows Japan's military to come to the aid of allies under attack.
Mr Abe said the biggest shift in Japan's defence policy since the creation of its post-war military in 1954 was vital to meet emerging challenges such as those posed by China's growing military power.
The progress means that US and Japan can repackage regular joint drills, such as the one in waters about 560km south of Japan, "to do more high-level sophisticated" training.
Mr Abe told US President Barack Obama last Thursday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila that he will consider sending Japanese maritime forces to back up US operations in the South China Sea.
The comments came after the US sparked an angry reaction from China last month by sailing a warship close to an artificial island in waters that China views as its own territory. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga later said Japan was not currently planning to take part in US operations.
The US has welcomed Mr Abe's drive to expand the role of its military.
Based in Yokosuka, Japan, the Seventh Fleet, with some 80 vessels, 140 aircraft and 40,000 sailors, is the most powerful naval force in the western Pacific.
After China, Japan is Asia's second-most powerful maritime nation with more than a hundred warships.