History was made yesterday as Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the USS Ronald Reagan during Japan’s massive Maritime Self-Defense Force Fleet Review exercise. It was the first time a Japanese Prime Minister had visited a U.S. aircraft carrier at sea, and is yet another sign of Japan’s changing military stance.
Abe’s visit was both a highly diplomatic and militaristic affair, especially considering that it was occurring during an exercise meant just to spotlight Japan and its allies’ immense Naval might. When tied together, the symbolism of the history making visit and its flotilla backdrop, hint at a new age in Japan’s military doctrine.
The Prime Minister arrived aboard the USS Ronald Reagan via a state-of-the-art Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force MCH-101 helicopter to a dignitary’s welcome. A formal red-carpet was laid out, flanked by saluting deck crew in their colorful tunics. Along with the Prime Minister, a cadre of Japan’s highest military officials also came long.
The visit was proceeded by an aircraft fire aboard an VAW-115 Liberty Bells squadron E-2 Hawkeye that was undergoing service in the Ronald Reagan’s hangar bay. The fire was successfully extinguished, and the ship moved forward with accommodating its high-profile guests and participating in the fleet review. The extent of the damage done to the aircraft remains unknown, although thankfully nobody was injured during the blaze.
While aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, which has just taken the place of the USS George Washington as America’s forward deployed carrier, Abe toured the ship, sat in a Super Hornet cockpit and met with the ship’s commanding officers and other high-ranking U.S. Navy officials that were aboard for the event. These included Rear Admiral John Alexander, commander of Battle Force 7th Fleet and Vice Admiral Nora Tyson, commander of the 3rd Fleet.
The Ronald Reagan went on to participate in Japan’s Fleet Review, which included an impressive parade of ships and aircraft. In all, about 50 vessels were involved, including an international component from the U.S., France, Australia, India and South Korea. Aside from the USS Ronald Reagan, the U.S. Navy cruiser USS Chancellorsville and destroyer USS Mustin also took part in the massive show of force.
This impressive display of Japanese might, and the Prime Minister’s first visit to the American super carrier at sea, come at a time when Japan is morphing its military doctrine from one exclusively focused on self defense, to one that could allow for expeditionary operations abroad.
Just last month, Japan passed a series of legislation that would provide a legal avenue for the country to come to the aid of key allies militarily, including the United States. This opens up a the possibility of foreign combat roles for Japan’s military forces for the first time since the end of World War II.
Although they remain highly controversial among Japan’s populace, these legislative changes are largely a response to China’s growing military and much more aggressive foreign policy choices as of late, as well as the constant threat from a unpredictable nuclear-armed North Korea.
With all this in mind, Abe’s visit to an American super carrier is a highly symbolic one. It underscores how Japan’s military stance has changed and may continue to do so in fairly drastic ways. This change can also be seen by Japan’s own budding carrier fleet, which has increasingly been made up of larger and larger ships.