In an effort to showcase its own might in the South China Sea, Japan is set to dispatch its largest warship, the JS Izumo aircraft carri—I mean, helicopter destroyer, on a three-month tour through the contested body of water. The move comes as China continues building artificial islands in the area—often violating other nations’ maritime rights in the process—to stake a claim to the region that China has argued mostly belongs to itself.
Reuters reports the ship will make stops in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. And after that, it will join the Malabar joint naval exercise with Indian and U.S. naval vessels in the Indian Ocean in July.
A source told Reuters that the aim is to test the Izumo on an extended mission.
The Izumo, which costs between $1 billion and $1.5 billion, is 816 feet long and can carry up to 14 helicopters. According to The Diplomat, the vessel will be used primarily for anti-submarine warfare and command-and-control operations. It has two Raytheon RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile SeaRAM launchers for air defense and two Phalanx close-in weapon systems to take on anti-ship missiles. It can carry a crew of around 470 and up to 400 of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force troops. Though it is a helicopter carrier, USNI News reports that it can also carry fix-winged aircraft like the short-take-off-but-vertically-landing F-35B.
We reported as much in 2015, when Japan inducted the vessel into its navy:
There is no reason the Izumo cannot deploy dozens of JGSDF AH-64D Apache attack helicopters, heavy and medium assault helicopters or even the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter one day.
Seeing as Japan already has the F-35A on order, and there have been no claims saying the Izumo’s design precludes it from accepting the short takeoff and vertical landing version of the Joint Strike Fighter in the future, it remains a real possibility.
While Japan does not have any claim to the South China Sea (it does has a dispute with China over the East China Sea), Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei do. The area is highly contested due to its vast oil and gas deposits and fishing grounds. More than $5 trillion in trade passes through the sea each year as well.
Given Tokyo’s close alliance with Washington, and its strained relations with Beijing, it makes sense for Japan to flex its muscles in the body of water. Foxtrot Alpha noted in February that Chinese Coast Guard ships encroached into waters near the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which was the fourth incursion of the year at the time, according to Japan. In the event of a military conflict, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said during his visit to Japan last month that Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which allows for the use of military force, covers the islands.
The Izumo itself is a fascinating vessel. Japan insists on calling it a helicopter destroyer likely because Article 9 of its constitution “renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation,” which would seemingly forbid offensive weapons like an aircraft carrier, even though it clearly appears to have the capacity to function as a STOVL (short take-off and vertical landing aircraft) carrier. To be sure, the Izumo is not the equivalent of the American Nimitz-class or Ford-class super carrier. Instead, it’s similar to smaller carriers like the Italian aircraft carrier Cavour or the Spanish ship Juan Carlos I.
The U.S. Navy, by contrast, calls its small carriers “amphibious assault ships.”
It will be interesting to see how Beijing reacts to the deployment of the Izumo in light of its expansionism in the region. Japan’s pacifist constitution, under Article 9, disavows the use of force. But under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has long called for a revision to the constitution, Japan has been increasingly pushing the envelope. With neighbors like an increasingly belligerent China and a bellicose North Korea, could anyone blame them?