TOKYO • Japan will dispatch its biggest warship since World War II to protect a US supply ship, as tensions mount in the region over North Korea, media reports said yesterday.
The helicopter carrier Izumo will leave the mother port of Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, today and join the US supply ship to escort it farther into the western Pacific, reported the leading Asahi Shimbun daily and Jiji Press, citing unnamed government sources.
It will be the first deployment - outside of troop exercises - to protect the US fleet after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expanded the country's military capabilities in 2015, though they remain restricted under Japan's Pacifist Constitution.
Under revised security laws, members of Japan's Self-Defence Forces are allowed to use their weapons to protect armaments and other equipment of the units of US forces and armed forces of other countries that are engaged in activities contributing to the defence of Japan.
Escorting a supply vessel was one of the activities that the US military strongly requested from the Japanese military, reported the Asahi Shimbun yesterday. Government sources told the newspaper that the warship will join the US Navy supply ship in waters off the Boso Peninsula, near Tokyo, and will protect the vessel until it reaches the Pacific side off Shikoku, one of the four main islands of Japan.
The US supply ship is expected to support America's naval fleet in the Pacific, possibly including the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which remains on high alert over North Korea's ballistic missile firings, the reports said.
Japanese naval officials declined to comment on the reports.
Earlier this week, the US carrier took part in joint drills with Japan's naval forces.
Last Saturday, the USS Carl Vinson arrived in the waters between the Korean peninsula and Japan and kicked off a joint drill with the South Korean navy, hours after North Korea launched a ballistic missile in apparent defiance of the United States.
Mr Abe, who was in London, has strongly condemned North Korea's latest missile launch.
Meanwhile, the Japanese public remains divided over whether to amend the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Pacifist Constitution, which marks its 70th anniversary on Wednesday. A poll by Kyodo News showed 49 per cent of respondents were in favour of revising Article 9, while 47 per cent were against it.
But in a separate poll by public broadcaster NHK - which suggested the possibility of amending the Constitution to account for security threats but without touching Article 9 - 57 per cent were against revising Article 9, while 25 per cent were in favour of it.