WASHINGTON • Japan will step up its activity in the contested South China Sea through joint training patrols with the United States and bilateral and multilateral exercises with regional navies, Japanese Defence Minister Tomomi Inada said.
In a speech on Thursday at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank, she said Japan's increased engagement in the area, where Japan shares US concerns about China's pursuit of extensive territorial and maritime claims, would include capacity building for coastal nations. Japan also has its own dispute with China over territory in the East China Sea.
Ms Inada said that if the world condoned attempts to change the rule of law and allowed "rule bending" to succeed, the "consequences could become global".
"In this context, I strongly support the US Navy's freedom-of- navigation operations, which go a long way to upholding the rules- based international maritime order," she said.
"Japan, for its part, will increase its engagement in the South China Sea through, for example, Maritime Self-Defence Force joint training cruises with the US Navy and bilateral and multilateral exercises with regional navies," she said.
Japan would also help build the capacity of coastal states in the South China Sea, said Ms Inada, before heading for talks with US Defence Secretary Ash Carter at the Pentagon.
Japan said this month it was ready to provide Vietnam with new patrol ships, in its latest step to boost the maritime law enforcement capabilities of countries locked in territorial rows with China.
It also agreed to provide two large patrol ships and lend up to five used surveillance aircraft to the Philippines, another country at odds with China over sovereignty issues in the South China Sea.
Earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that Japan should "exercise caution in its words and deeds" on the South China Sea issue, Xinhua news agency reported. They were meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hangzhou, China.
Ms Inada, who last month became the second woman to be appointed Japan's Defence Minister, is known for embracing causes that irritate Japan's biggest trading partner. She is a frequent visitor to the Yasukuni Shrine, seen by many in China as well as South Korea as a symbol of Japan's past military aggression in Asia.
In her speech, however, she also emphasised that the Defence Ministry would "keep the door open" for constructive dialogue with China, and that she was committed to accelerated talks on a maritime and air communication mechanism between the two countries to prevent unplanned collisions in disputed areas of the East China Sea.
In response to Ms Inada's comments, the US Navy said in a statement: "The United States welcomes Japan's interest in expanding its maritime activities in the South China Sea. We continue to explore ways to enhance US-Japan cooperative efforts to contribute to the security and stability of the region."