WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Japan will step up its activity in the contested South China Sea through joint training patrols with the United States and bilateral and multilateral exercises with regional navies, Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said on Thursday.
Inada said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, that Japan's increased engagement in the area, where Japan shares U.S. concerns about China's pursuit of extensive territorial claims, would include capacity building for coastal nations.
Japan also has its own dispute with China over territory in the East China Sea.
Inada said that if the world condoned attempts to change the rule of law and allowed “rule bending” to succeed, the "consequences could become global."
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"In this context, I strongly support the U.S. Navy's freedom-of-navigation operations, which go a long way to upholding the rules-based international maritime order," she said.
"Japan, for its part, will increase its engagement in the South China Sea through, for example, Maritime Self-Defense Force joint training cruises with the U.S. Navy and bilateral and multilateral exercises with regional navies," she said.
Japan would also help build the capacity of coastal states in the South China Sea, said Inada, before heading for talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter at the Pentagon.Japan said this month it was ready to provide Vietnam with new patrol ships, in its latest step to boost the maritime law-enforcement capabilities of countries locked in territorial rows with China.
It also agreed to provide two large patrol ships and lend up to five used surveillance aircraft to the Philippines, another country at odds with China over sovereignty issues in the South China Sea.
In response to Inada's comments, the U.S. Navy said in a statement: "The United States welcomes Japan's interest in expanding its maritime activities in the South China Sea. We continue to explore ways to enhance U.S.-Japan cooperative efforts to contribute to the security and stability of the region."
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Leslie Adler)