TOKYO • Japan will dispatch its largest warship on a three-month tour of the South China Sea beginning in May, sources said yesterday, in its biggest show of naval force in the region since World War II.
China claims almost all the disputed waters and its growing military presence has fuelled concern in Japan and the West, with the US holding regular air and naval patrols to ensure freedom of navigation.
The Izumo helicopter carrier, commissioned only two years ago, will make stops in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka before joining the Malabar joint naval exercise with Indian and US ships in the Indian Ocean in July. It will return to Japan in August, the sources added.
"The aim is to test the capability of the Izumo by sending it out on an extended mission," said one of the sources. "It will train with the US Navy in the South China Sea," he added, asking not to be identified.
A spokesman for Japan's Maritime Self-Defence Force declined to comment.
Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei also claim parts of the sea which has rich fishing grounds, oil and gas deposits and through which around US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) of global sea-borne trade passes each year.
Japan does not have any claim to the waters but has a separate maritime dispute with China in the East China Sea.
Japan wants to invite Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has pushed for ties with China in recent months as he has criticised the old alliance with the United States, to visit the Izumo when it visits Subic Bay, about 100km west of Manila, another of the sources said.
The 249m-long Izumo is as large as Japan's World War II-era carriers and can operate up to nine helicopters. It resembles the amphibious assault carriers used by US Marines but lacks their well deck for launching vessels.
Japan in recent years, particularly under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has been stretching the limits of its post-war, pacifist Constitution. It has designated the Izumo as a destroyer because the Constitution forbids the acquisition of offensive weapons. Still, the vessel allows Japan to project military power well beyond its territory.
Elsewhere, Vietnam yesterday urged China to stop sending cruise ships to the South China Sea in a response to one of Beijing's latest steps to bolster its claims in the strategic waterway.
A Chinese cruise ship with more than 300 passengers visited the disputed Paracel islands earlier this month.