WASHINGTON • Japan's top military commander, Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, expects China to become increasingly assertive in the South China Sea, and says it is possible Japan would conduct patrols and surveillance activities there.
He said on Thursday there had been "talk" of Japan holding such patrols in the South China Sea, including anti-submarine activities.
"But our position... is that we consider this as a potential future issue to be considered depending on how things pan out," he told the Centre for Strategic and International Studies think-tank in Washington.
Admiral Kawano earlier met his US counterpart, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and discussed implementation of updated bilateral defence guidelines agreed this year.
Tensions have been rising in the South China Sea, home to important shipping lanes, because of overlapping territorial claims and rapid building of artificial islands by Beijing that has been criticised by Tokyo and Washington.
China claims most of the South China Sea and has territorial rivalries there with several South-east Asian states. It also has competing claims with Japan in the East China Sea, farther to the north.
Admiral Kawano said: "My sense is that this trend will continue into the future where China will go beyond the island chain in the Pacific. So if anything, I would believe that the situation will worsen."
China has ramped up defence spending in recent years and is aiming to develop a navy capable of defending its growing interests as the world's second-largest economy. Its pursuit of sovereignty claims has rattled neighbours, although it says it has no hostile intent.
Admiral Kawano also said the number of aircraft Japan scrambled in response to territorial incursions last year was in line with Cold War levels and one reason was Chinese activity.