WASHINGTON – The U.S. Defense Department said Friday it would “welcome” future air patrols by Japan over the South China Sea, where China is involved in territorial disputes with some Southeast Asian countries.
But the U.S. State Department did not appear to be in step with the Pentagon in encouraging Japanese involvement in such operations, which would create a potential diplomatic issue all but certain to provoke China.
The two departments were commenting on a recent report that a senior U.S. naval officer favored air patrols by the Maritime Self-Defense Force over the waters.
Such an operation by the MSDF “in the South China Sea makes sense in the future,” Adm. Robert Thomas, top commander of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, was quoted as saying in a recent interview with Reuters.
The 7th fleet operates from the western Pacific to the Indian Ocean and is based in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, told reporters Friday, “We would agree with Adm. Thomas that those kinds of patrols and activity is welcome and will help contribute to stability in the region.”
“There’s no reason for China or any other nation to look at it any differently,” Kirby said.
But State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki stopped short of endorsing the reported remark.
“We’re not aware of any plans or proposals for Japan to patrol the South China Sea,” Psaki told a press briefing. “I believe they were comments made” by a Defense Department official.
The United States welcomes “a more active role for Japan in ensuring stability and security in Asia” Psaki said, adding, “But we’re not aware of plans or proposals for new patrols.”
She said, “It sounds like reports aren’t accurate.”
China has already expressed displeasure at the admiral’s reported remarks.
Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said Friday that countries outside the region should “refrain from sowing discord among other countries and creating tensions.”
Ties between Japan and China have been strained due mainly to disputes over the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, called Diaoyu in China and Tiaoyutai in Taiwan, which also claims them. The isles are uninhabited but believed to be located in areas rich in fishing and energy resources.
The U.S. government has repeatedly asked Tokyo and Beijing to settle the issue through dialogue.