Japan 'may join US ops in S. China Sea'

Abe says he will weigh move, and may consider Aquino's request for patrol vessels

TOKYO • Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told US President Barack Obama that he will consider sending the country's maritime forces to back up US operations in the South China Sea.

The comments in a bilateral meeting on Thursday on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Manila came after the United States sparked an angry reaction from China last month by sailing a warship close to an artificial island in waters that China views as its own territory.

Japan and the US, its only formal ally, have occasionally conducted 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-Defence Forces in the South China Sea, I will consider it while focusing on what effect the situation has on Japan's security," Mr Abe told Mr Obama, according to Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshige Seko.

Mr Abe's remarks could chill a nascent recovery in ties between Japan and its biggest trading partner after their worst crisis in decades.

NO CHANGE IN POLICY

We have no plans for our Self-Defence Forces to take part in US 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.

CHIEF CABINET SECRETARY YOSHIHIDE SUGA

While Mr Abe has held two summits with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the past year, the two leaders have not held any formal bilateral meetings during a series of international gatherings this month and China has shown irritation over Mr Abe's criticism of its actions in the South China Sea in recent weeks.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said yesterday that Mr Abe's comments did not indicate a change in policy, and Japan was not currently planning to take part in US operations.

"We have no plans for our Self- Defence Forces to take part in US 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," Mr Suga, Japan's top government spokesman, told reporters in Tokyo.

In comments likely to further irritate Beijing, Mr Abe has also said he might consider a request from the Philippines for large coast guard ships to patrol the South China Sea, after the two allies reached a deal on defence equipment and technology. The deal will mark the first time Japan has agreed to directly donate military equipment to another country.

"There was a request from President Benigno Aquino regarding the provision of large patrol vessels to the Philippine Coast Guard and Japan would like to consider the specifics," Mr Abe said in a statement. The two leaders met on Thursday night at the close of the Apec summit.

The US has welcomed Mr Abe's drive to expand its military's role.

Separately, China's top admiral said his forces have shown "enormous restraint" in the face of US provocations in the South China Sea, while warning they stand ready to respond to repeated breaches of Chinese sovereignty.

"The Chinese navy has closely monitored the provocative actions of the United States and issued several warnings, while exercising enormous restraint in the interests of safeguarding the overall situation in bilateral relations," said Admiral Wu Shengli, commander of the People's Liberation Army Navy, according to a report on the Defence Ministry's website late on Thursday. "If the United States carries out repeated provocations despite China's opposition, we have the ability to defend our national sovereignty and security."

He made the comments in a meeting in Beijing on Thursday with Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the US Pacific fleet.

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2015, with the headline 'Japan 'may join US ops in S. China Sea''. Print Edition | Subscribe