The Japanese and U.S. governments are considering having the Self-Defense Forces and U.S. military conduct joint patrols and surveillance in the South China Sea, where China has been increasingly active, according to informed sources.
The initiative is aimed at ensuring the stability of sea lanes Japan needs to import crude oil and prompting China to exercise restraint on alleged provocations in the area.
With Japan and China divided over the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, extending SDF activity to the South China Sea is likely to trigger a backlash from China, which claims the islands as Diaoyu. Taiwan claims the uninhabited islets as Tiaoyutai.
The Japanese government will therefore discuss the issue cautiously with the United States, the sources said.
Japan and the U.S. plan to include cooperation in the area of maritime domain awareness, or the ability based mainly on satellites to monitor maritime activities for the security of remote islands and sea lanes, when they update the bilateral defense cooperation guidelines later this month.
The study on joint surveillance in the South China Sea reflects the forthcoming revisions, the sources said.
In the South China Sea, territorial tensions have been rising between China and Southeast Asian countries. China has started building a runway on land it added to an area around the Spratly Islands, which are also claimed by other parties including Vietnam and the Philippines.
In light of the moves, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani and U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter agreed at a meeting in Tokyo on April 8 that Tokyo and Washington oppose any attempts to change the status quo by force.
Nakatani said after the meeting that Japan will explore the possibility of working with the U.S. in the South China Sea.
A Japanese government official said Japan’s oil routes pass through the South China Sea and Japan should commit to the initiative to ensure stability in the area, the official said.
Progress has been made in creating a legal framework needed for such patrols and surveillance. Security legislation drawn up by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe includes amendments to the SDF law that would allow the SDF to defend U.S. warships in the event of an emergency.
The United States has high hopes for joint patrols and surveillance because sharing would help reduce the burden on the U.S. military at a time when defense outlays are being cut due to fiscal constraints.
But a senior official of the Defense Ministry said the SDF is fully occupied with patrolling Japanese territory. Extending activity to the South China Sea also presents difficult challenges in terms of equipment and staffing, the official said.