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.