TOKYO (Reuters) – The United States would welcome a move by Japan to extend air patrols into the South China Sea as a counterweight to a growing fleet of Chinese vessels pushing Beijing’s territorial claims in the region, a senior US Navy officer told Reuters.
Currently, regular patrols by Japanese aircraft only reach into the East China Sea, where Tokyo is at loggerheads with Beijing over disputed islands. Extending surveillance flights into the South China Sea will almost certainly increase tensions between the world’s second- and third-largest economies.
“I think allies, partners and friends in the region will look to the Japanese more and more as a stabilising function,” Admiral Robert Thomas, commander of the Seventh Fleet and the top US navy officer in Asia, said in an interview.
“In the South China Sea, frankly, the Chinese fishing fleet, the Chinese coast guard and the (navy) overmatch their neighbours,” Thomas said.
China’s foreign ministry said it had no immediate comment on the interview.
Thomas’s comments show Pentagon support for a key element of Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push for a more active military role in the region. That is crucial because US and Japanese officials are now negotiating new bilateral security guidelines expected to give Japan a bigger role in the alliance, 70 years after the end of World War Two.
“I think that JSDF (Japan Maritime Self Defence Forces) operations in the South China Sea makes sense in the future,” Thomas said.