NAVAL BASE GUAM - Multinational military drills on Guam designed to show support for the free passage of vessels in international waters amid concerns China may restrict access to the South China Sea have been indefinitely postponed after a French landing craft ran aground Friday.
U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff Grimes, chief of staff for Joint Region Marianas, told reporters he didn’t know when the drills would resume.
A French catamaran landing craft ran aground just offshore, said Jeff Landis, a spokesman for Naval Base Guam.
The vessel didn’t hit coral or spill any fuel, he said. No one was injured. Friday’s landing was meant to be a rehearsal for a drill at Tinian island Saturday, Landis said.
Four nations participate
The exercises involving the U.S., U.K., France and Japan were expected to begin Friday and last a week.
The drills around Guam and Tinian islands were scheduled to include amphibious landings, delivering forces by helicopter and urban patrols.
Two French ships on a four-month deployment to the Indian and Pacific oceans were to be featured in the drills. Joining were Japanese forces, U.K. helicopters and 70 U.K. troops deployed with the French amphibious assault ship FS Mistral. Parts of the exercise were to feature British helicopters taking U.S. Marines ashore from a French vessel.
South China Sea
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.
This week the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote President Donald Trump to express concern that the U.S. hadn’t conducted freedom of navigation operations since October.
The letter from Republican Sen. Bob Corker, Democrat Sen. Ben Cardin and five other senators supported a recent assessment by the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific that China is militarizing the South China Sea and is continuing a “methodical strategy” to control it.
The letter, dated Wednesday and obtained by The Associated Press, urged the administration to “routinely exercise” freedom of navigation and overflight. The senators described the South China Sea as critical to U.S. national security interests and to peace in the Asia-Pacific.
The Guam exercises come amid modestly growing European interest in the South China Sea, said David Santoro, a senior fellow for nuclear policy at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu think tank.
“What I’m hearing from the French and to some degree the British, is an increased interest in what’s going on in Asia and how they can help,” Santoro said. As for North Korea, Santoro said Pyongyang would likely be watching but he didn’t think the exercises were intended to send any signal to the country.
Japan, which sent 50 soldiers and 160 sailors and landing craft, has been investing in amphibious training so it can defend its own islands. Tokyo is particularly concerned China might attempt to take over rocky, uninhabited outcrops in the East China Sea that it controls but Beijing claims.
Guam and Tinian are about 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) south of Tokyo. They’re about the same distance to the east from Manila, Philippines.