JAPAN risks angering China after one of Tokyo’s largest warships completed a two-month deployment in the South China Sea.
Japanese helicopter carrier Izumo left a Philippine military base today after an extended spell in the Indo-Pacific region. The Izumo boldly sailed near the ‘nine-dash line’ – an imaginary nautical border marking China’s territorial claims in the region – and conducted training exercises with Brunei and the Philippines. Having collaborated with the US and other NATO-allied nations, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could be looking to strengthen his relations with Western nations amid rising tensions between China and Washington.
His symbolic show of military might in the South China Sea may reflect a desire from Japan to extend their military role.
Japan is now all set to receive F-35 Lightning jet fighters from the US – which will be hosted by the Izumo.
But the Izumo will require modifications to keep the jets on board.
Journalist Emily Wang suggests the fact that Japanese officials are willing to modify their most powerful warship for the sake of accommodating US jets reflects the country’s growing role in the post-war alliance with Washington.
May saw a flagship war exercise conducted alongside France, Australia and the US – their first ever combined drill – in the Bay of Bengal before an affable meeting between President Donald Trump and Mr Abe cemented relations between the two.
Japan then went on to conduct a series of collaborative exercises with countries including Canada, India and Malaysia in the South China Sea.
It could lead to China, which already has tensions with the US and Australia, becoming rivals with Japan once again.
The move comes amid China’s aggressive expansion into the South China Sea – and despite Japan’s warship commander Hiroshi Egawa insisting the operation wasn’t “aimed at any one specific country”, the move is likely to heighten tensions with Beijing.
Beijing, which believes it is entitled to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, has locked horns with the US over territorial disputes in the region.
The Philippines yielded to China last week over access to their Exclusive Economic Zone – meaning Beijing fishermen now have full access to Philippine waters previously deemed to belong exclusively to Manila.
Meanwhile, the US recently accused Cambodia of hosting the Chinese military at a key naval base, sparking fears of growing Chinese forces in the region.
It is thought Japan could now work closely with Australia and the US to contain China’s behaviour in the region.
With a trade war threatening to intensify between Beijing and Washington, Mr Abe could prove a crucial ally for the US.
Japan’s recent actions have defied their pacifist record since the end of World War 2.
After being defeated at the hands of the Allied forces, the new constitution – enacted in May 1947 – outlawed war as a means to settle international disputes.
However in 2014, Japan’s government reinterpreted the specific article to allow the right of “collective self-defence”.
In 2015, Mr Abe passed legislation allowing the country’s military to participate in foreign conflicts.
Alongside Trump’s commitment to help Japan expand its military capability, it goes some way to explaining Tokyo’s hawkish turn.