Japan's military is considering joining US in maritime air patrols in the South China Sea in response to China's increasingly assertive pursuit of territorial claims, a Japanese and a U.S. source familiar with the discussions said.
Territorial spats over the waters and islands of the South China Sea have roiled relations between China and neighboring countries in recent years, and tensions continue to escalate in the wake of new defence guidelines announced by Japan and the United States.
News of the deliberations came as Japan and the United States unveiled new defence guidelines during a visit to Washington by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, reflecting his plans for Japan to take on a wider security role beyond the direct defense of its home islands.
Japan and the US bolstered their strategic alliance for the first time in almost two decades as they seek to respond to China’s increasingly assertive posturing in the Asia-Pacific region.
New defense guidelines released Monday in New York expand US-Japanese cooperation around the globe and into space and cyberspace. Japan will take on a more robust role that potentially includes cooperating with the U.S. to intercept ballistic missiles and protect ships, according to the new document.
While no concrete plans had yet been formulated, Japan could join U.S. patrols in the South China Sea, or operate patrols in rotation from the Japanese island of Okinawa on the edge of the East China Sea, the Japanese source told Reuters.
US military says a decision to begin flights in the South China Sea could prompt Tokyo to ask the Philippines for access to air bases under disaster relief training and other joint training exercises. Such access would not currently be possible, because Manila does not have any military co-operation agreement with Tokyo similar to the pact it has with Washington.
After facing weeks of criticism about its reclamation work on disputed islands in the South China Sea, China turned the tables on Vietnam, the Philippines and others by accusing them of carrying out their own illegal building work.
At a daily news briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei listed reclamation work being done by other claimant nations in the Spratlys, which China calls the Nansha Islands.
"For a long time, the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries have been carrying out large-scale reclamations on the Chinese islands they are illegally occupying in the Nansha Islands, building airports and other fixed infrastructure, even deploying missiles and other military equipment," Hong said.
"China is resolutely opposed to these illegal activities and demands the relevant countries immediately stop their infringements on Chinese sovereignty and rights," he added.
China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas, with overlapping claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Recent satellite images show China has made rapid progress in building an airstrip suitable for military use in the Spratly Islands and may be planning another.
Those moves, along with other reclamations, have caused alarm around the region and in Washington too, with the issue dominating a summit of Southeast Asian leaders this week, to China's displeasure.
US President Barack Obama on Wednesday accused China of "flexing its muscles" to advance its maritime claims against Asian neighbours, including a dispute with Japan over uninhabited islets in the East China Sea.
He also said the new defence guidelines meant US and Japanese forces would be more flexible, and that Japan would "take on greater roles and responsibilities in the Asia-Pacific". Hong urged the United States to abide by its promises not to take sides in territorial disputes or "send the wrong signals" and "complicate the situation".
The United States has a squadron of Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion patrol planes and a squadron of new Boeing P-8 Poseidon sub-hunting aircraft in the region, six of which are stationed in Okinawa.
Japan operates a fleet of 70 P-3s in the seas around Japan and is due to deploy about 20 new Kawasaki Heavy P-1 patrol aircraft with twice the range of the older Orions over the next five years.
At a regional summit in Malaysia on Monday the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) released their most critical statement yet of China's building of man-made islands on disputed reefs, which Washington and Tokyo worry will become military bases to police the area.
ASEAN said that China's reclamation programme "eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability".
The South China Sea comprises a stretch of roughly 1.4 million square miles in the Pacific Ocean that encompasses an area from the Singapore and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan, spanning west of the Philippines, north of Indonesia, and east of Vietnam.
The South China Sea islands number in the hundreds. The islands are mostly uninhabited and have never had an indigenous population, making the issue of historical sovereignty a thorny one to resolve.