Japan to Mull Expanding Navy Patrols to South China Sea

The Japanese government said it would consider conducting air and sea patrols in the South China Sea, a move that would risk fresh tensions with China as its neighbor steps up its military presence in the region.

“The interdependence of nations is increasing and deepening, and the situation in the South China Sea affects our national security,” Defense Minister Gen Nakatani told reporters Tuesday in Tokyo. “The way our nation handles this will be an issue going forward,” he said, adding that Japan has no specific plans at the moment to start patrols.

Nakatani was responding to a question about comments made last week by Vice-Admiral Robert Thomas, commander of the Navy Seventh Fleet, who said the U.S. would welcome an extension of air patrols into the South China Sea to counter the growing number of Chinese vessels pushing the country’s territorial claims.

Japan’s regular patrols currently extend to waters around its borders and take in the East China Sea, where Japan is embroiled in a dispute with China over the sovereignty of a tiny island chain. The potential extension of surveillance would be just one point of discussion as Japan and the U.S. work to finalize a revision of guidelines for defense cooperation in the first half of this year.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying last week warned against outside interference in the South China Sea, without specifically referring to Japan.

“We are willing to and able to jointly uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Hua told reporters in Beijing in response to a question about Thomas’s comments. “Countries outside the region should respect the endeavor of countries in the region to safeguard peace and stability, and refrain from sowing discord among other countries and creating tensions.”

Maritime Power

Chinese President Xi Jinping has sought to extend China’s reach since coming to power in November 2012. The Communist Party leadership has stated that making China a maritime power is a national goal. China is also developing a more combat-ready military and long-range capacity to bolster its claims to a large part of the South China Sea.

Tensions have risen in recent years between China and other claimant countries, especially the Philippines and Vietnam. The Philippines has submitted its territorial case to international arbitration.

China has already extended naval patrols to cover most of the South China Sea, according to state media reports. The government in Beijing has repeatedly denied it will set up an air defense zone over the area.

China is also embroiled in a dispute with Japan over the sovereignty of the East China Sea islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. Japan’s purchase of the islands in September 2012 sparked demonstrations in China and attacks against Japanese companies. Encounters between ships and planes from the two countries have raised the potential for a confrontation.