The United States says it would welcome help from Japanese air patrols to monitor the ongoing territorial dispute in the South China Sea that's consuming Southeast Asia. If Japan acts on the invitation, the country will be involved in yet another area of diplomatic contention over disputed territories.
“I think allies, partners and friends in the region will look to the Japanese more and more as a stabilizing function,” Admiral Robert Thomas, commander of the Seventh Fleet and the top U.S. naval officer in Asia, said in an interview with Reuters on Thursday. American presence in Southeast Asia is part of the Obama administration's "Asia pivot" policy, which offers military support to allies in the region. “In the South China Sea, frankly, the Chinese fishing fleet, the Chinese coast guard and the [navy] overmatch their neighbors.”
“I think that JDSF [Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces] operations in the South China Sea make sense in the future,” Thomas added.
Japan has had some experience using its military to patrol controversial waters. In the East China Sea, Japan and China have faced off on multiple occasions during surveillance efforts surrounding the hotly disputed, resource-rich Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
In the South China Sea, the dispute surrounds a cluster of islands known most commonly as the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal and the waters that surround them. The area occupies important strategic geopolitical and economic channels in the region. China has taken an aggressive stance on their claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea waters, much to the dismay of many of their neighbors, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.
Most significantly, China has begun developing a man-made island near the Spratly Islands by dredging the ocean, creating a 3,000-meter (9,842 foot) long and 300-meter (984-foot) wide land structure. According to a report from IHS Jane’s Defense, satellite imagery of the man-made island shows what appears to be construction of an airplane landing strip. A Chinese military airbase in the South China Sea would radically improve Chinese surveillance and support claims over the disputed area.
Though regional allies are asking for support, Japan has never expressed any intention to join in patrolling the South China Sea. According to the report by Reuters, the Japanese Defense Ministry consistently declines to comment on changes in Japanese-American cooperation plans in the region.