SINGAPORE Japan's defence minister on Saturday backed the United States using any option to deal with North Korea, including military strikes, and said Tokyo wanted to build a deeper alliance with Washington that could play a regional security role.
"The United States is making clear through both words and deeds that all options are on the table. I strongly support the U.S. position," Japanese Minister of Defence Tomomi Inada said during a speech at a regional security conference in Singapore.
Pyongyang's accelerating nuclear and missile programmes are stoking fear in nearby Japan and prompting a harder line on North Korea from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
A Japanese helicopter carrier and destroyer are concluding three days of drills with two U.S. aircraft carriers in the Sea of Japan that also included simulated combat sorties between U.S. Navy F-18s and Japanese air force F-15s.
The exercise followed three ballistic missile tests by Pyongyang in as many weeks. The latest on Monday reached an altitude of 120 km (75 miles) before falling into international waters in the Sea of Japan, but inside an exclusive economic zone where Japan has jurisdiction over the exploration and exploitation of maritime resources.
Apart from using the U.S. alliance to tackle its belligerent neighbour, Japan also wants the military partnership to exert influence on other parts of Asia, including the highly contested South China Sea, Inada said.
China claims almost all the disputed waters, which is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, and its growing military presence has fueled concern in Japan and the West.
"The robust, long-standing Japan-U.S. alliance now functions as a public good that contributes to the peace and stability of the region," she said.
Beijing often rails against the United States, Japan and other countries for what it sees as interference in the South China Sea, insisting it is for claimant countries involved in disputes to work them out.
Inada also called on European navies to provide "a regular and visible presence" in the region.
A French amphibious assault carrier visited Japan in April after sailing through the South China Sea. Japan's military later trained with the French force alongside U.S. and British contingents in what sources earlier told Reuters was meant as a show of force aimed at China.
(Reporting by Tim Kelly and Masayuki Kitano; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Lincoln Feast)