Troops from the US, Japan, France and the UK will be taking part in a two-day exercise in the western Pacific from Friday (12 May) in what is seen as a display of military power aimed at China.
The joint drills, led by French amphibious assault carrier Mistral, will see troops practising amphibious landings, delivering forces by helicopters and urban patrols. The exercises will be held on and around the islands of Tinian – administered by the US – and Guam, located about 2,500km (1,553 miles) south of the Japanese capital Tokyo.
Although the drills are reportedly aimed at showing support for free passage of vessels in international waters, the move is likely to trigger a strong protest from Beijing as it is said to restrict its movement in the disputed 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.
Critics fear China's actions could restrict movement in a key waterway for world trade and rich fishing grounds.
China says its island construction is mainly for civilian purposes, particularly to increase safety for ships. It has said it won't interfere with freedom of navigation or overflight, although questions remain on whether that includes military ships and aircraft.
The Mistral, which arrived at Japan's naval base of Sasebo on 29 April, is in the middle of a four-month deployment to the Indian and Pacific oceans. The exercises involve 700 troops, including 70 British troops.
The joint exercises are also likely to send a message to North Korea about the US' commitment to the Asia and Asia-Pacific region. Both the countries have been at loggerheads as tensions spiked after the Kim Jong-un regime launched a ballistic missile – albeit a failed one – and the US responded to it by sending the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier to the Korean peninsula.
Parts of the drill will involve British helicopters taking US Marines ashore from the French vessel, which is capable of carrying up to 35 helicopters and four landing barges, AP reported.
"The message we want to send is that we're always ready to train and we're always ready for the next crisis and humanitarian disaster wherever that may be," said US Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Kemper Jones, the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment.
The joint exercise will take place at a time when Japan and the US are said to be concerned over China's militarisation in coastal waters beyond its territory and in the South China Sea. The French navy is also wary of China's movement in the sea as Paris too controls several islands like New Caledonia and French Polynesia in the Pacific.