TOKYO • A top US admiral wants the powerful Third Fleet to expand its engagement in the Western Pacific region from its headquarters in San Diego by operating more closely with the Japan-based Seventh Fleet to focus on areas with the "greatest instability".
In two recent speeches that received little media attention, the US Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Scott Swift, questioned the need for an administrative boundary running along the International Date Line to demarcate operations for the Seventh Fleet and the Third Fleet.
In an early sign of a shift in strategy, US naval officials said the Third Fleet commander, Vice-Admiral Nora Tyson - rather than her Seventh Fleet counterpart - would represent the United States Navy at the Japan Fleet Review on Oct 18, a display of Japanese naval power held every three years.
"I would not be surprised to see more of Vice-Admiral Tyson operating forward as part of this concept development process," Admiral Swift said in a speech on Sept 7 during a visit to the Seventh Fleet headquarters in Yokosuka, Japan.
Any change would not mean the relocation of headquarters or home ports, but would allow the two fleets to work together in "areas with the greatest instability", Admiral Swift said, without elaborating.
His remarks coincide with growing tension over China's territorial ambitions in Asia's disputed waters, especially in the South China Sea, where Beijing is building seven artificial islands that include three airstrips.
Admiral Swift was away from his headquarters in Hawaii and not immediately available to comment, his office said.
A US Pacific Fleet naval official told Reuters that the idea was to scrap the administrative boundary but that it was at the conceptual stage.
He said the plan revolved around the Third Fleet "operating forward", which is naval terminology for conducting patrols and missions in distant theatres.
It would formalise and expand the Third Fleet's role in the Western Pacific from a command and control perspective, said the official on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
"We're not sure how often or when that would manifest at this point," he added.
When operating west of the International Date Line, the Third Fleet's vessels have typically come under Seventh Fleet command, US naval officials said.
They said closer integration between the two fleets was separate from US President Barack Obama's "pivot" to Asia, which will see 60 per cent of the US Navy's assets deployed in the Pacific region by the year 2020.
One Asia security expert, Ms Mira Rapp-Hooper at the Centre for a New American Security in Washington, cautioned against reading too much into the move.
"The Third Fleet may become more present symbolically in the Asia-Pacific, but I am not sure that this has major strategic implications, say for the US-Japan relationship... at least based on what I understand thus far," Ms Rapp-Hooper said.
The United States and its allies in Asia, including Japan, have called on Beijing to halt construction on its man-made islands in the Spratly archipelago.
Almost a third of global trade goes through the waters, including two-thirds of the world's oil shipments.
China has repeatedly stressed it has "indisputable sovereignty" over the Spratlys, saying the islands would be used for civilian and undefined military purposes.
Japan is also at loggerheads with China over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
The Seventh Fleet has America's only forward deployed aircraft carrier strike group along with 80 other vessels, 140 aircraft and 40,000 sailors.
The Third Fleet has more than 100 vessels, including four aircraft carriers.