A Japanese surveillance plane and about 20 troops conducted the first of two days of joint training with the Philippine navy on Tuesday off the coast of Palawan, a strategically important island not far from contested islands claimed by several countries including China and the Philippines.
While the P-3C plane was being used for maritime search-and-rescue drills and disaster relief drills, the aircraft is also a mainstay of Japan's anti-submarine and other aerial surveillance efforts. In theory, it could help the U.S. keep an eye on the Chinese navy in the South China Sea. Some experts think that's a possibility in coming years.
"It's likely we will see Japan doing joint surveillance and reconnaissance in the South China Sea in the coming years," said Narushige Michishita, a defense expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. "It is going to be with the U.S., Australia, the Philippines and others."
Others are less certain. Such a move would raise tensions with China, with which Japan already has a major territorial dispute over islands farther north in the East China Sea. It would face public opposition at home from those who want Japan's military to avoid getting entangled in overseas disputes. The military is already stretched, keeping an eye for example on North Korea and China in the East China Sea.'