Tokyo: Japan and the United States will hold their biggest ever joint military drills just days after a US and South Korean show of force amid tensions on the Korean peninsula, officials said on Thursday.
The previously announced "Keen Sword" drills, which were planned before North Korea`s artillery barrage of a South Korean island last week, will take place from Friday to December 10, a US military official confirmed.
"Keen Sword will cap the 50th anniversary of the Japan-US alliance as an `alliance of equals`," Major William Vause, chief of operational plans, training and exercises said in a statement.
"It is the largest bilateral exercise between the United States and Japan military forces."
To demonstrate solidarity with Seoul, the Pacific allies will for the first time invite South Korean military officers to observe the drills, Japanese officials said.
"It turns out to be good timing to show the bond between Japan and the United States," a senior Japanese Defence Ministry official told the Yomiuri Shimbun daily, with the drill following US-South Korea exercises that ended on Wednesday.
Around 34,000 Japanese military personnel with 40 warships and 250 aircraft will join more than 10,000 US counterparts with 20 warships and 150 aircraft in the drill in Japanese waters off its southern islands, close to the southern coast of South Korea.
Training events include integrated air and missile defence, base security, close air support, live-fire training, maritime defence and search and rescue.
By having South Korean military officers observe the Japan-US exercises, Tokyo hopes to demonstrate solidarity among the three countries at a time of high tension in the region.
Japan sent soldiers in an observer capacity to take part in joint US-South Korean military exercises in July, held after the sinking of the Cheonan, a 1,200-tonne South Korean naval vessel, the Japanese defence ministry said.
An international probe blamed North Korea for the sinking, which left 46 South Korean sailors dead.
The joint manoeuvres will be much bigger than a naval exercise staged by Washington and Seoul this week in a show of force after Pyongyang stunned the world with the deadly artillery strike on a South Korean border island.
Japan has been on high alert since the attack, with Prime Minister Naoto Kan instructing his ministers to stay in Tokyo during the US-South Korea drill in the Yellow Sea to prepare for any emergencies.
Japan relies heavily on the United States for its security as under its pacifist constitution, its military is not allowed to attack enemy territories.
China`s newly assertive posture on territorial issues this year has also been a cause for concern for Tokyo and other Asian nations in a region where Washington is seen as an important counterbalance.
Following Pyongyang`s November 23 attack on Yeonpyeong island, which killed four people, China has proposed that the six nations involved in long-stalled North Korean denuclearisation talks hold an emergency meeting on the crisis.
But instead the United States, Japan and South Korea have agreed to hold their own talks in Washington on December 6 in an apparent snub to China. The other members of the six-party process are China, North Korea and Russia.