Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sunday became the first sitting Japanese leader to set foot on a U.S. aircraft carrier when he boarded the USS Ronald Reagan, which arrived at its new home port at Yokosuka Naval Base in Kanagawa Prefecture earlier this month.
The move — coming almost a month to the day since the Diet enacted highly divisive security laws — is apparently aimed at showing off the bilateral military alliance. The laws will for the first time since World War II allow the Self-Defense Forces to come to the aid of allies under armed attack, giving Japan a freer hand in the defense arena.
Earlier, Abe attended a Maritime Self-Defense Force fleet review in Sagami Bay and called the U.S. flattop “a tomodachi (friend) who rushed to the rescue at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake. I give it a hearty welcome.”
As he was taken around the flattop by Vice Adm. Nora Tyson, commander of U.S. 3rd Fleet, and other U.S. naval officials, Abe welcomed its deployment as a “symbol of the ties between Japan and the United States, which engaged in Operation Tomodachi after the (March 2011) Great East Japan Earthquake.”
He also revealed that he had the Ronald Reagan in mind when he called bilateral ties an “alliance of hope” in his speech in April before the U.S. Congress.
The 333-meter-long USS Ronald Reagan, which arrived Oct. 1 to replace the USS George Washington, which left in May, took part in Operation Tomodachi, the relief mission led by the U.S. after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which wrecked much of the Pacific coast of Tohoku.
Abe was accompanied by Taro Aso, who is both deputy prime minister and finance minister, and Defense Minister Gen Nakatani.
“By highly hoisting the flag of ‘proactive pacifism,’ I’m determined to contribute more than ever to world peace and prosperity,” Abe said, while urging Japanese troops to “further fulfill” their duties “in order to hand over to children a warless and peaceful Japan.”
During the naval review, an armada of carriers, cruisers, destroyers and submarines gathered in a display of naval power that showcased Tokyo’s latest hardware and signaled wider engagement with the U.S. Navy in the western Pacific.
Abe is pursuing a doctrine of collective self-defense with allies meant to give his nation a bigger role in regional security in order to counterbalance the military power of an increasingly assertive China.
Neighboring China, which has strained ties with several Southeast Asian countries over territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea, has said it is wary of Japan’s changing defense posture. Abe in an address after the maritime show told sailors to gird themselves for future missions and “to continue to guard the nation’s peace.”Joining the Maritime Self-Defense Forces were vessels from India, South Korea, Australia, France and the U.S. Altogether, 50 vessels and 61 aircraft joined the display, held every three years.
The centerpiece of Japan’s naval lineup was the Izumo helicopter carrier, Japan’s biggest warship since World War II. The 248-meter-long flattop, commissioned in May, is a highly visible example of how Japan is expanding its military capability to operate overseas.
The MSDF designates it as a destroyer keeping it within the bounds of a pacifist Constitution that forbids Japan from possessing the means to wage war, such as through force-projecting aircraft carriers.
In a signal the MSDF’s growing role in Asia will be accompanied by the U.S. fleet’s wider engagement in the region, the U.S. Navy sent Tyson, commander of the powerful Eastern Pacific Third Fleet, to join Abe on his ship.
Her appearance followed the U.S. scrapping of an administrative boundary along the international date line in the Pacific that demarcates the operating areas for the Seventh and Third fleets.
The change gives Tyson a command role in the western Pacific and will allow the U.S. to deploy vessels quickly to trouble spots in the region, Chief of the Naval Operations John Richardson said at a press briefing in Tokyo on Thursday.
“Adm. Tyson’s presence here is just a recognition that we are trying to be as flexible as possible to keep as many options on the table as possible so that we can be as responsive as possible,” the U.S. Navy’s most senior uniformed officer said.
The forward-deployed Seventh Fleet, with some 80 vessels including the USS Ronald Reagan, is the most powerful naval force in the western Pacific. The Third Fleet, with its home port in San Diego, California, includes four carrier strike groups.