Lt. Steven Hopkins, an American sailor from the Japan-based USS Stethem, was reported missing on August 1, leading to a search-and-rescue mission by the United States, Japan and China. The US Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) were conducting a routine joint exercise in the South China Sea when the report broke. US Military Sealift Command ships USNS Vice Admiral K.R. Wheeler (T-AG-5001) and USNS Amelia Earhart (T-AKE-6) also joined the search along with Japanese MSDF ships JS Izumo and JS Sazanami. Meanwhile, two Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy ships conducting operations nearby soon arrived to aid search efforts. The three countries spent 79 hours searching 10,000 square miles of ocean. The search was unfortunately unsuccessful, and called off after three days.
The United States and Japan have been military allies since 1951, and reaffirmed their commitment to each other and the region as recently as 2015. Japan hosts almost 40,000 US troops, spread out over two-thirds of Japan’s prefectures. The two nations also regularly conduct bilateral military exercises between US Army, Navy, and Air Force troops and their Japanese counterparts. According to national public opinion polls, 83% of Japanese and 81% of Americans support the alliance, a testament to its strength.
About one month prior to the joint rescue mission, the Stethem had sailed within 12 miles of the contested Paracel Island chain, prompting Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Lu Kang to state that USS Stethem’s actions had “violated the Chinese law and infringed upon China’s sovereignty.” Meanwhile, the United States has taken umbrage with China’s “excessive maritime claims” in the hotly disputed South China Sea, citing concerns over freedom of navigation. Cooperative missions represent a welcome break from these tensions, and as one US Navy official noted, provide “a good example of what benefits can come from increased positive interaction with the Chinese.” Relations between China and the United States are also improving in other areas, thanks to expanding investment and trade, as well as people-to-people exchange and tourism.
Savannah Shih is a research intern at the East-West Center and a graduate student of Asian Studies at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.