May 24, 2006

Six countries plan Asian naval security drill

TOKYO (Reuters) - Six countries including Japan, China,
South Korea and the United States are to hold a series of joint
maritime exercises, just weeks after Tokyo and Seoul were
locked in a tense stand-off over some tiny disputed islands.

Japan, China, South Korea, the United States, Canada and
Russia will launch naval exercises in the Japan Sea and East
China Sea to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction,
starting on Saturday, Japanese Coastguard officials said.

The officials said it would be the first time China took
part in such joint naval exercises.

In October 2004, Japan hosted the U.S.-led Proliferation
Security Initiative (PSI), Asia's first naval exercise, in the
backyard of North Korea.

Australia, Japan, Singapore, Thailand and New Zealand are
the only countries from the Asia-Pacific to publicly support
the PSI, although the group says it has the support of more
than 60 nations.

China and South Korea have been reluctant to join the
initiative, apparently to avoid offending North Korea - the
reclusive communist state with nuclear ambitions that is an
unspoken target of the PSI.

The Japanese Coastguard officials would not say whether the
planned joint maritime exercises were focused on North Korea.

"The exercises are primarily aimed at preventing the spread
of weapons of mass destruction," one of the officials said.

A U.S. embassy spokesman in Tokyo said exercises would
"include ship boarding and searches along the lines of PSI."

Japan and South Korea defused a possible showdown in April
when Japan agreed to call off a maritime survey and South Korea
put off registering the Korean names of some underwater
features near the disputed group of islets which sit about the
same distance from the two countries' mainland.

The joint exercises will also be held in the East China Sea
where Japan and China are in dispute over gas fields and
sovereignty of a separate group of small islands.