MANILA/TOKYO – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday that he will consider dispatching the Self-Defense Forces to the South China Sea while examining the impact of the situation there on Japan’s security, a Japanese official said, as the two allies seek ways to defuse tensions in the waters.
The comments were made in a bilateral meeting Thursday on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila and came after the U.S. raised China’s ire last month by sailing a warship close to an artificial island whose waters China views as its own territory.
Japan and the U.S., its only formal ally, occasionally conduct joint exercises in the South China Sea, but never in such close proximity to features claimed by China.
“With regard to activity by the Self-Defense Forces in the South China Sea, I will consider it while focusing on what effect the situation has on Japan’s security,” Abe was quoted as telling Obama by Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshige Seko. The comments were later confirmed by a foreign ministry official.
Abe’s remarks could chill a nascent recovery in ties between Japan and its biggest trading partner after their worst crisis in decades. While Abe has held two summits with President Xi Jinping in the past year, the two leaders haven’t held any formal bilateral meetings during a series of international gatherings this month, and China has shown irritation over Abe’s criticism of its actions in the South China Sea in recent weeks.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Friday that Abe’s comments did not indicate a change in policy, and Japan is not currently planning to take part in U.S. operations.
“We have no plans for our Self-Defense Forces to take part in U.S. freedom of navigation operations, and at this time the SDF is not conducting continuous patrols in the South China Sea, nor do we have concrete plans to do so,” the government’s top spokesman told reporters in Tokyo.
During the meeting with Obama, Abe told the U.S. leader that he was “opposed to all unilateral attempts to change the status quo and escalate tensions.”
He also expressed “concerns” over the escalation of the situation in the South China Sea, in light of China’s land reclamation work in the disputed Spratly Islands, Seko said in a briefing afterward.
At the beginning of the meeting, which lasted more than an hour, Obama said he and Abe “share an interest in continuing to foster rule of law and supporting international norms in areas like freedom of navigation and maritime law.”
Seko said Abe also expressed “support” for the dispatch late last month of a U.S. guided-missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of an artificial island built by Beijing in the disputed waters, where territorial claims have also been made by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Obama told Abe that Washington plans to order such dispatches on a regular basis.
After the USS Lassen sailed into the area, China expressed “resolute opposition” to moves that threaten Chinese sovereignty.
The United States, keen to play a vital role in maintaining security in the Asia-Pacific, has said it will continue its freedom-of-navigation operations.
Although Japan is not directly involved in the overlapping territorial claims, Abe has said he sees peace and stability there are crucial to Japan’s economy as $5 trillion worth of Japanese trade every year passes through the area, a key shipping route for oil and other imports.
China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, which is one of the world’s busiest and most vital shipping lanes and believed to contain rich fishing grounds and possibly large oil and gas deposits.
China, the world’s second-largest economy, has called for territorial disputes there to be settled bilaterally, not multilaterally, among the claimants and frowns on what it perceives as interference by outsiders, including Japan and the United States.
China had called on the parties concerned not to raise the South China Sea issue during the APEC summit.
Earlier this month, Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan urged his Japanese counterpart to avoid any actions that might “complicate” the situation, saying the waters weren’t an issue between their countries. A Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman this week criticized recent remarks Abe made on the issue, saying they weren’t good for regional stability.
On another issue of mutual interest, Abe and Obama reaffirmed efforts to rapidly implement the recently agreed U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact.
The 12-member TPP also involves Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam — all of which are also part of 21-member APEC.
The two leaders, who last met in April in Washington, will also continue pushing to complete the contentious plan to build a replacement base for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa.
Abe said Japan was determined to push forward with the plan, which he has described as the “only solution” to remove the dangers posed by the base’s current location in crowded Ginowan.
The plan to move it to a coastal zone further north on the main island of the island — a key part of the broader realignment of U.S. military forces in the region — has been stalled for nearly two decades by disagreements between the prefectural and central governments.
The central government recently began land reclamation work at the new base site, but again ran into fierce opposition, this time from Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga and other residents who want to have the base removed from Okinawa.
On Thursday, Abe also met with Philippine President Benigno Aquino to reaffirm security ties amid China’s muscle-flexing in the South China Sea. By reaffirming close security ties with Obama and Aquino, Abe is keen to show his resolve that Japan is in step with the United States to help regional partners deal with challenges in the region
“To move Japan-U.S. cooperation forward, it is indispensable to work together with countries that share fundamental values such as freedom, democracy and rule of law,” Abe told Obama, according to Seko.
Both Abe and Obama spoke about creating a network for countries who share the same view, with the Japan-U.S. alliance serving as the cornerstone, Seko said.
Given that the meeting was the first held since Japan enacted divisive security laws in September to bolster bilateral security cooperation, Abe said he hoped the Japan-U.S. alliance will be a “prelude to further contributing to peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and the international society.”
Obama congratulated Abe on the legislation.
Meanwhile, Abe and Obama also discussed greater anti-terrorism cooperation with France and other members of the international community following last week’s deadly attacks in Paris.
“What is vital is for Japan to work with France and the broader global community to resolutely condemn (terrorism) and take counterterrorism steps,” a Foreign Ministry official said.