Japan is planning to send their largest warship, the Izumo helicopter carrier, to the hotly contested South China Sea in what will be the nation’s largest demonstration of naval force since World War II.

The South China Sea is among the most traveled waterways on the planet, seeing an estimated one-third of all global commerce shipped along its surface and harboring expansive deposits of oil and natural gas deep beneath its depths.  As such, a number of nations have laid competing claims over the expanse of sea, with none more aggressive or powerful than that of China, whose rapidly developing military and efforts to build and fortify islands in the area have drawn international criticism, and the concerned eye of Japan’s most powerful ally, the United States.

“The aim is to test the capability of the Izumo by sending it out on an extended mission,” said one source that asked to remain anonymous.” It will train with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea,” he added.

The Izumo helicopter carrier was commissioned only two years ago, as a part of the Japanese Maritime Defense Force.  The ship weighs in at 24,000 tons, and despite its similar appearance to that of a full aircraft carrier, is designed specifically to carry and launch up to 14 helicopters for use in things like anti-submarine operations.  It is important to note, however, that despite lacking adequate runway space for most non-helicopter aircraft, the chopper friendly design of the ship could also accommodate American Ospreys or even the Naval variation of the F-35, which has vertical takeoff and landing capabilities.  Throughout its design, the Izumo and fellow helicopter carriers in its class have been accused of being built specifically with a Chinese conflict in mind for just these reasons, though officials have worked to emphasize the “multi-purpose nature” of the ships.

Although nations like Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei all join China in staking a claim to the South China Sea, Japan doesn’t actually have any such stake, instead deploying their vessel as a show of force intended to assure the free and unchallenged passage of international vessels through the extremely important region, not unlike the policy of U.S. warships when traveling through the area.

Since the end of World War II, Japan has pursued an actively pacifist foreign policy, forcing the nation’s government to classify the Izumo as a destroyer rather than a carrier, as a destroyer can be defensive in nature and a carrier is intended as a means of force projection rather than protection.  The vessel’s primary mission is anti-submarine warfare, but by working alongside U.S. allies, like the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier based out of the same port, it could easily become a formidable method of conveying Japanese intent throughout the region, bolstering the hard-line President Trump has been taking toward Chinese military and economic expansion, despite being constructed as a strictly defensive vessel.

“In this sense, the Izumo is…intended as a platform for power projection. It is designed to offer the option to expand fleet air defense or support short-distance amphibious raids. Izumo maximizes a variety of functions, from ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) to HADR (Humanitarian Aid/Disaster Relief), showing the extent of Japan’s seriousness as a responsible stakeholder in international security,” Alessio Patalano, a naval expert at King’s College in London told reporters earlier this year.

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According to reports, the Izumo is planned to spend three months in the South China Sea, stopping in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka before joining the Malabar joint naval exercise with Indian and U.S. naval vessels in the Indian Ocean scheduled for July of this year.

 

Image courtesy of Reuters