An armada of carriers, cruisers, destroyers and submarines gathered off Japan’s coast Sunday in a display of naval power that showcased Tokyo’s latest warships and signalled wider engagement by the US Navy in the western Pacific.
The Fleet Review in seas near Tokyo was the first major display of Japanese military hardware since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won lawmaker approval for legislation that for the first time since World War Two will allow Japanese soldiers to defend their foreign allies.
Abe is pursuing a doctrine of collective self-defense with allies meant to give his nation a bigger role in regional security to counterbalance the military power of an increasingly assertive China.
Neighbouring China, which has strained ties with several Southeast Asian countries over territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea, has said it is wary of Japan’s changing defense posture.
Abe, in an address after the maritime show, told sailors to gird themselves for future missions and “to continue to guard the nation’s peace.”
Joining the Japanese navy were vessels from India, South Korea, Australia, France and the United States, including the Japan-based aircraft carrier, the 333 metre (1092.52 ft) long USS Ronald Reagan. Altogether 50 vessels and 61 aircraft participated in the display, which is held every three years.
The centerpiece of Japan’s naval line up was the Izumo helicopter carrier, Japan’s biggest warship since World War Two. The 248 metre long (813 feet) flat top, which was commissioned in May, is a highly visible example of how Japan is expanding its military capability to operate overseas.
The Maritime Self-Defense Force designates it as a destroyer keeping it within the bounds of a pacifist constitution that forbids Japan from possessing the means to wage war such as force-projecting carriers.
In a signal the Japanese navy’s growing role in Asia will be accompanied by the US fleet’s wider engagement in the region, the US Navy sent Vice Admiral Nora Tyson commander of the powerful Eastern Pacific Third Fleet to join Abe on his ship.
Her presence comes after the US scrapped an administrative boundary running along the international date line in the Pacific that demarcates the operating areas for the Seventh and Third Fleets.
The change gives Tyson a command role in the western Pacific and will allow the US to deploy vessels quickly to trouble spots in the region, the Chief of the Naval Operations, John Richardson, said at a press briefing in Tokyo Thursday.
“Admiral Tyson’s presence here is just a recognition that we are trying to be as flexible as possible to keep as many options on the table as possible so that we can be as responsive as possible,” the US Navy’s most senior uniformed officer said.
The forward-deployed Seventh Fleet with some 80 vessels, including the USS Ronald Reagan is the most powerful naval force in the western Pacific. The Third Fleet, with its home port in San Diego, California includes four carrier strike groups.