Japan to send helicopter destroyer for rare long-term joint exercises in South China Sea and Indian Ocean

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The Maritime Self-Defense Force will hold joint military exercises with five Asian navies and the U.S. during a rare long-term dispatch to the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, the Defense Ministry’s Maritime Staff Office has said, in a move certain to stoke anger in Beijing.

Japan announced Tuesday that it will send three vessels — including its largest, the helicopter destroyer Kaga — for a more than monthlong tour set to begin Sunday and run through October.

The three ships will make port calls in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, and will conduct joint exercises aimed at bolstering combat skills and improving cooperation with each country’s navy while also linking up with the U.S. Navy.

Tuesday’s announcement also came on the same day that defense chief Itsunori Onodera pledged to help strengthen Sri Lanka’s maritime security, in a fresh sign of efforts to counter China’s strategic grip on the Indian Ocean island.

President Maithripala Sirisena thanked Onodera — the first Japanese defense minister to visit the country — for donating two coast guard patrol craft costing over $11 million in total, his office said in a statement after talks in Colombo.

Beijing has built up a series of military outposts in the South China Sea, which includes vital sea lanes through which over $3 trillion in global trade passes each year. China claims the area within its so-called nine-dash line, which encompasses most of the waterway. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.

China has said the facilities are for defensive purposes, but some experts say this is part of a concerted bid to cement de facto control over the South China Sea.

Media reports quoted Japanese government sources as saying next week’s MSDF dispatch is in line with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “free and open” Indo-Pacific strategy. The U.S. military’s Pacific Command has been renamed the Indo-Pacific Command to strengthen ties with Indian Ocean nations amid China’s growing military and economic clout in the region. The U.S. Navy has sent warships to the South China Sea as part of its “freedom of navigation” operations to challenge claims it says violate international law.

With its own dispatch, Tokyo is likely also aiming to respond to Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in the disputed waterway. Last year, Japan sent its Izumo helicopter destroyer to the South China Sea for a three-month tour in its biggest show of naval force in the region since World War II.

Washington and Tokyo have blasted Beijing for the island building, fearing the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway.

Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said that while the upcoming dispatch of naval firepower was significant, it did not necessarily mean that Japan was “emboldened” to test China’s mettle.

“I do not think Japan is emboldened but rather increasingly worried about the regional security environment and is responding by trying to do more to address these worries,” he said.

Japan to send helicopter destroyer for rare long-term joint exercises in South China Sea and Indian Ocean

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