A Maritime Self-Defense Force submarine took part in a drill last week in the disputed South China Sea for the first time, the Defense Ministry said Monday, signaling Tokyo’s intention to keep in check Beijing’s muscle-flexing in the area.
In a rare announcement, the MSDF said the Kuroshio, the helicopter carrier Kaga and two other destroyers, the Inazuma and Suzutsuki, conducted an antisubmarine warfare exercise last Thursday in the waterway. Usually, the MSDF keeps the activities of its submarines secret, except for long-term dispatches to places such as Hawaii for drills.
The exercise, which involved the Kushiro trying to evade detection, was conducted away from the island bases China has been building to push its claims in the strategic sea. However, it could still anger Beijing because submarines represent a greater potential menace to shipping than surface vessels.
The submarine left the MSDF base in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, on Aug. 27 for the drill. The three other ships were separately dispatched to the exercise area, which encompasses the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, for a period lasting from Aug. 26 to Oct. 30.
On Monday, the Kuroshio made a port call at Vietnam’s strategic Cam Ranh Bay port facing the South China Sea, relatively close to the Paracel and Spratly island chains. Vietnam is at odds with China over claims to those chains.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in response to the drill that regional peace and stability should not be undermined by a country outside the region.
The spokesman said China is in talks with Southeast Asian countries to avoid disputes and called on countries outside the region to act prudently.
Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea with its self-declared maritime border known as the “nine-dash line,” and has built artificial islands with military infrastructure in the waters.
Beyond Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan also have overlapping territorial claims in the area. The MSDF is believed to have conducted the drill on the high seas within the nine-dash line.
The South China Sea contains vital global shipping routes and what are believed to be significant oil and natural gas deposits.
China has engaged in years of land-reclamation efforts on reefs it controls in the region, and built both civilian and military facilities in the contested area.
Last week’s exercise came after a British Royal Navy amphibious assault ship, HMS Albion, sailed close to islands claimed by China in the waterway late last month to exercise “freedom of navigation” rights.
Britain’s first such operation prompted a strong protest from China, which sent aircraft and a naval vessel to meet the British ship.
The U.S. Navy has conducted similar operations in the South China Sea. Washington has said it would like to see more countries challenge Beijing in the South China Sea, through which some $3 trillion of shipborne trade passes each year.
Foreign aircraft and vessels in the region are routinely challenged by Chinese naval ships and monitoring stations on the fortified islands, sources have said previously. Beijing insists its intentions in the South China Sea are peaceful.