Japan’s Top Military Officer: Joint US-Japanese Patrols in South China Sea a Possibility

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Japan’s Top Military Officer: Joint US-Japanese Patrols in South China Sea a Possibility

Will the Japanese Navy expand into the South China Sea with regular patrols?

Japan’s highest ranking military officer reiterated that Tokyo would consider joining U.S. Forces in conducting patrols in the South China Sea, the Wall Street Journal reports today.

According to Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of the Joint Staff of the Japan Self-Defense Forces,  Japan remains deeply concerned over China’s recent constructions of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

While noting that China’s activities have created “very serious potential concerns” for Tokyo, he also emphasized  that as of now there are no concrete plans for the Japan’s Maritime-Self Defense Force (JMSDF) to patrol the 3,500,000 square kilometers (1,400,000 square miles) of the South China Sea:

 Of course, the area is of the utmost importance for Japanese security. We don’t have any plans to conduct surveillance in the South China Sea currently but depending on the situation, I think there is a chance we could consider doing so. (…)

In the case of China, as we can see with the South China Sea problem, they are rapidly expanding their naval presence and their defense spending is still growing. Also because there is a lack of transparency, we are very concerned about China’s actions.

Admiral Kawano was appointed Chief of Staff of the Joint Staff Council in October 2014. In April this year, the United States and Japan revised a set of guidelines for U.S.-Japan defense cooperation that included bilateral pledges towards safeguarding sea lines of communications. “The alliance with the U.S. is our foundation. That’s how we build deterrence,” Kawano emphasized.

The United States military apparently would support Japan’s move into the South China Sea. “I view the South China Sea as international water, not territorial water of any country, and so Japan is welcome to conduct operations on the high seas as Japan sees fit,” noted Admiral Harry Harris, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, earlier this month in Tokyo.

As one of colleagues pointed out last month (see:  “US-Japan Joint Patrols in the South China Sea?”) a number of obstacles still would have to be overcome in order for joint U.S.-Japanese patrols in the South China Sea to become reality. These include, among other things,  revised domestic legislation and successfully negotiating an agreement with Manila over access to Philippine military bases for Japanese aircraft and vessels in order to be capable of patrolling larger stretches of ocean in the South China Sea.

There is also the question of capacity within the JMSDF and whether it could keep up a regular patrol schedule given the current size of the Japanese Navy.  As I have noted before (see: “This is Japan’s Best Strategy to Defeat China at Sea”), the JMSDF is a highly capable navy and it  is technologically more advanced, more experienced, and more highly trained than its main competitor – the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

Yet, in the long-run, the JMSDF and the Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) – Tokyo’s principle enforcer of maritime law – are at a relative disadvantage if one looks at the burgeoning naval rearmament program of China, which is gradually shifting the regional maritime balance in Beijing’s favor.