Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told President Barack Obama he’ll consider sending the country’s maritime forces to back up U.S. operations in the South China Sea.
The comments in a bilateral meeting Thursday on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila came after the U.S. 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 U.S., 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-Defense Forces in the South China Sea, I will consider it while focusing on what effect the situation has on Japan’s security," Abe told Obama, according to Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshige Seko. Abe’s comments were later confirmed by a foreign ministry official.
Abe’s remarks could chill a nascent recovery in ties between Japan and its biggest trading partner after their worst crisis in decades. While Abe has held two summits with President Xi Jinping in the past year, the two leaders haven’t held any formal bilateral meetings during a series of international gatherings this month and China has shown irritation over Abe’s criticism of its actions in the South China Sea in recent weeks.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Friday that Abe’s comments did not indicate a change in policy, and Japan wasn’t currently planning to take part in U.S. operations.
"We have no plans for our Self-Defense Forces to take part in U.S. 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," Suga, Japan’s top government spokesman, told reporters in Tokyo.
The U.S., which has guaranteed Japan’s security since the end of World War II, has welcomed Abe’s drive to expand the role of its military. Earlier this year, the prime minister pushed through bills to back up his government’s reinterpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution and, among other things, allow it to come to the aid of an ally under attack.
Earlier this month, Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan urged his Japanese counterpart to avoid any actions that might "complicate" the situation, saying the waters weren’t an issue between the two countries. A Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman this week criticized recent Abe remarks on the South China Sea, saying they weren’t good for regional stability.
China’s claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea -- a conduit for trade and energy supplies between Europe and Asia, with more than $5 trillion of shipping each year -- overlap with those of five other Asian nations.
Under Xi, the country has stepped up efforts to assert control over an area defined by a dashed line drawn on a 1947 map. Its program of reclaiming land had created 2,900 acres in the Spratly Islands as of June, according to the Pentagon.