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A Maritime Self-Defense Force submarine has conducted joint military drills with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea for the first time — a move analysts say was intended to highlight the two navies' growing capabilities amid China's moves in the region.

The MSDF said in a statement released late Tuesday that the exercise conducted earlier in the day focused on anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and included one of Japan’s largest warships, the Kaga helicopter carrier, as well as a destroyer and a patrol plane, together with a U.S. destroyer and patrol aircraft, in the first such joint drills in the South China Sea.

The announcement of the submarine’s location was unusual as both the Japanese and U.S. rarely disclose the whereabouts of their so-called silent service. Japanese submarines are among the world’s most modern and sophisticated, observers say, and their MSDF operators among the best trained.

An MSDF submarine conducted military drills in the South China Sea for the first time in September 2018, the Defense Ministry said at the time. Those drills also involved the Kaga and other vessels as they attempted to detect the submarine in the waterway.

Analysts say that the announcement of the drill was intended to signal the growing U.S.-Japan security partnership amid China’s increasingly assertive military moves in both the South and East China seas.

The announcement represented “a logical step-up” in terms of Japan’s moves in the South China Sea, as it involved the U.S. Navy, said Collin Koh, a research fellow and maritime security expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“It does appear to signal not only an apparent resolve for both allies to work closely together in the South China Sea — against the growing (People’s Liberation Army) undersea challenge in view of the expanding ASW capabilities of the PLA Navy — but also Tokyo's intent to keep up with its commitment towards maintaining a viable military presence in the South China Sea.”

The USS Carl Vinson (front, second from left) takes part in a joint sailing with the Maritime Self-Defense Force's Kaga helicopter carrier (front, third from left) and other vessels in the South China Sea on Oct. 30. | U.S. NAVY
The USS Carl Vinson (front, second from left) takes part in a joint sailing with the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Kaga helicopter carrier (front, third from left) and other vessels in the South China Sea on Oct. 30. | U.S. NAVY

Koh, however, said it remains to be seen whether the exercises signaled more regular MSDF submarine deployments to the waterway.

Beijing claims some 90% of the South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade flow every year, despite overlapping claims by others in the region including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei. It has conducted a massive land-reclamation project to essentially build and militarize a number of islands in the waters despite protests from other claimants and the United States and Japan.

Washington and Tokyo fear that the Chinese-held outposts, some of which boast military-grade airfields and advanced weaponry, could be used to restrict free movement in an area that includes vital sea lanes.

Late last month, the Kaga and USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier conducted joint operations, including maritime strike exercises, in the South China Sea. While in the past they were considered unusual, such joint military exercises between the two allies have become more regularized in recent years.

But the U.S. and its allies still face challenges both in the region as China undergoes a massive military modernization program and as the U.S. Navy seeks to maintain its operational superiority.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Navy fired the commanding officer, executive officer and top enlisted sailor of a nuclear-powered submarine that crashed into an underwater mountain on Oct. 2, saying the accident was preventable.

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