The maiden overseas deployment of Japan’s largest post-World War II warship, the Izumo, to a three-month South China Sea cruise at a time when the United States and China in particular are contesting for political and military primacy in the region has set tongues wagging in many parts of the world, particularly in Beijing. It is Japan’s biggest foray into the region since World War II, taking place against the waxing of Chinese power and the waning of American sway.

The warship was recently in Singapore to take part in the International Maritime Review organized by the Republic of Singapore Navy as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations along with naval vessels from 20 other countries. After then making a port call in Vietnam, the Izumo, classified as a helicopter destroyer by Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, will call at ports in Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka before taking part in the Malabar naval exercises with the U.S. and India later in July this year. Although initially the Malabar started out as joint naval exercises between India and the U.S., Japan is now a permanent member of the same.

The Izumo’s main mission has been described as anti-submarine warfare. With a length of 248 meters and a displacement of 27,000 tons (on full load), it is a huge ship, the size of Japan’s WWII aircraft carriers. While Japan’s four such ships are designed for helicopters, it has been reported that they may also be capable, upon modifications, of landing and launching the new F35B joint-strike fighters the U.S. is supplying. China is clearly aware of this and is not happy about it. Japan plans ultimately to purchase 42 of the VSTOL (vertical and/or short take-off and landing) aircraft.

“I want to remind the Japanese side that they are not a party concerned in the South China Sea issue, and that they have a disgraceful history of occupying China’s Xisha and Nansha Islands during its war of aggression against China,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying when the voyage was announced in March. “The Japanese side should reflect upon the history, and be discreet with its words and deeds, instead of making waves in the South China Sea and impairing regional peace and stability.”

The second vessel of the Izumo-class, the Kaga, also entered service earlier in March this year. Soon after the launch, the Chinese daily Global Times retorted that “Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force commissioned … one of its largest helicopter-carrying destroyers with the same name as a notorious WWII warship.”

The Kaga shares its name with the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier Kaga, which took part in the attack on the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor, which sank nine ships, destroyed 188 aircraft and killed 2,400 Americans. The Chinese are also aware of the significance of that name.

First, the foray into southern waters is clearly intended to send the message that Japan is not to be counted out as the geopolitical stakes heat up in the Indo-Pacific with Beijing asserting its power and presence, and the U.S. seemingly unwilling to take on Beijing directly, with its attention being more focused on North Korea. It is also worthwhile to note that Washington needs Beijing’s help when it comes to dealing with the recalcitrant North and hence its hands are tied.

Second, this long forward deployment of the Izumo and the MSDF destroyer Sazanami will give its crew much needed practical experience in the high seas far away from Japan. The Izumo initially left its home port of Yokosuka to escort an American supply ship on May 1 on a 100-day deployment.

Third, in a subtle way it could also help Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prepare the ground domestically to revamp Japan’s Constitution. Recently, on May 3, Constitution Day, Abe, in a video message talked about removing the ambiguity about the status of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces because Article 9 of the Constitution clearly says that ” land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

Fourth, although Abe knows that though he and Donald Trump have struck a good rapport, he cannot take the maverick U.S. president for granted. Trump has already pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his growing ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping could well be giving the prime minister some reasons to worry.

Fifth, it is a way to send a signal and check the responses of some of the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, especially some countries that are increasingly trying to curry favor with Beijing. Recently, some heads of state from the ASEAN nations attended the Belt and Road forum in Beijing on May 14-15. These included President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, President Tran Dai Quang of Vietnam and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar.

The Izumo is also scheduled to dock at the Subic Bay naval base in the Philippines in June and it will be interesting to check if Duterte will visit the vessel, giving his new-found bonhomie with Beijing.

Sixth, Japan has been conducting joint maritime exercises with India since 2012 and is a treaty ally of the U.S. The Malabar exercises will allow the navies of the three countries to increase their interoperability to counter both traditional and non-traditional security threats.

All said and done, the maiden overseas deployment of the Izumo is a clear signal that the waters in the Indo-Pacific region are heating up. Japan under Abe is clearly in no mood to let go of its historical role and influence in the region. Freedom of navigation and commerce is critical for the state of the Japanese economy. With this deployment, as they say, Japan has “thrown its hat into the ring.”

Rupakjyoti Borah (rupakj@gmail.com, Twitter: @rupakj) is with the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. He was a visiting research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA), Tokyo where he worked on Japan-India maritime relations. A version of this article first appeared in the Asia Sentinel. www.asiasentinel.com

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