On June 16th, U.S. and Japanese forces carried out a bilateral aviation integration drill over the Sea of Japan. During the joint exercise, American F-35 Lightning II airframes flew alongside Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-2 fighters, showcasing cooperation between the two nations.
This drill was conducted shortly after North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles towards the East Sea last week, which fell into Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called the missile launches a “violent action” that threatened peace in the region.
South Korea’s military mirrored this rhetoric, denouncing the launches as “grave provocations.” Hours before Pyongyang conducted the launches, U.S. and South Korean troops completed a fifth round of joint drills near the Military Demarcation Line separating the Koreas.
Pyongyang is protesting U.S.-South Korean partnership
Over the last year or so, North Korea has ramped up its test launches, carrying out roughly 100 missiles since the start of 2022. While Pyongyang was likely just looking for a reason to continue to test out and develop its missile arsenal, experts also believe the launch was a direct response to the collaborative American-South Korean drills on the border.
A professor at Ewha University in Seoul told the Associated Press that “This launch is not to make up for the recent failure, because North Korea will almost certainly make another attempt later to put a spy satellite into orbit. The message of today’s missiles is more likely Pyongyang’s protest against South Korea’s combined defense exercises with the United States, as well as a demonstration of North Korea’s own military capabilities and readiness.”
Another failed North Korean test launch
Last month, a North Korean rocket carrying a military reconnaissance satellite crashed shortly after liftoff. Pyongyang condemned the officials involved in the unsuccessful launch who “irresponsibly” carried out preparations for the satellite. North Korea has been working to develop and expand its space-based surveillance system in recent years in an effort to more accurately monitor both South Korea and America.
The North Korean government frequently insists that such launches are necessary to combat what they call U.S.-led hostility in the region. The recent U.S.-South Korean military exercise certainly falls into this “hostile” category, according to Pyongyang.
The U.S.-Japanese aviation exercise was not the only collaborative military drill to take place in the western Pacific this month. Amidst rising tensions over the Taiwan Strait and increasing provocations by the People’s Liberation Army, the U.S. and its allies have conducted drills to display military cooperation. For the first time, the coastguards of the U.S., Japan and the Philippines launched maritime exercises in the South China sea this month.
China’s Navy has reportedly used “military-grade lasers” to target vessels near the Philippines, which has caused the country to become more vocal about the PLA’s agenda in its surrounding waters.
While these joint efforts between the U.S. and allies around the Pacific are encouraging, Beijing is also expanding its own joint military exercises with other nations. In 2023 alone, China has participated in drills with Singapore, Cambodia and Laos. Additionally, Chinese warships are expected to join a multilateral naval exercise near Indonesia later this month.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.