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.