WASHINGTON – A former top U.S. admiral has expressed support for joint freedom of navigation operations with Japan, the Philippines and other nations.
“I think the idea is good,” said U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, who was the U.S. Navy’s top uniformed officer until September last year, while commenting on possible bilateral freedom of navigation operations in Asian and Pacific waters with regional partners.
The United States has regularly sent ships into disputed waters in the past to assert its navigation rights and express its objection to overreaching maritime claims.
In a high-profile operation conducted recently, U.S. warships sailed within 12 nautical miles of disputed South China Sea islands effectively controlled by China.
In a recent interview, Greenert said such joint action would need to be designed so they do not purposefully increase tensions.
But “the idea of conducting operations, and they happen to include freedom of navigation operations, I think that has value,” he said.
Still, many Japanese officials are skeptical, believing such an operation with the United States conducted in waters near a Chinese-controlled island would provoke an intense backlash from Beijing.
Greenert said he “would reject” such a view. “We have to operate together. That’s a commitment that we make,” he said, stressing the importance of the alliance between Japan and the United States.
Asked why China is building military facilities on the South China Sea, Greenert said he thinks the country wants to maintain a sustained presence to influence the region.
China apparently wants “to have the option to conduct military operations” from the islands, he said, adding that Beijing seems intent to acquire the ability to operate tactical and maritime patrol aircraft and sustain combatant ships for long periods of time.
But given the difficulty of providing the needed electricity, fuel and drinking water locally, China is unlikely to build a large base there, he said.
Even if China starts military operations from its South China Sea outposts, they would be small in scale, he said.
As for relations with Tokyo, Greenert said that while he was still the chief of U.S. naval operations, Washington and Tokyo held “preliminary conversations” on the feasibility of introducing a Zumwalt-class stealth destroyer to an American base in Japan.
In a U.S. draft budget for fiscal 2017, the Navy has set aside funds to renovate its Sasebo base in Nagasaki Prefecture, a possible precursor to introducing the new destroyer.