Japan's Izumo-class helicopter carrier Kaga. Photo: Yomiuri Shimbun via AFP/Yoshiko Moriya

Japan is yet again sending one of its two large helicopter carriers to the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, it was reported on Wednesday, in a bid to maintain a presence in a region where China’s naval footprint is expanding rapidly.

The Izumo-class Kaga will set sail in September, making stops in Southeast Asia as well as at ports in India and Sri Lanka, according to reporting from Reuters, which cited two Japanese officials.

“This is part Japan’s efforts to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific,” one of the officials said.

The Izumo-class helicopter carriers, technically classified as destroyers, are the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s largest class of ship. One former MSDF official said early this year that the Izumo, the first ship of the class, was originally designed to be converted into an aircraft carrier for use with the vertical-takeoff version of the F-35 stealth fighter jet.

The Asahi Shimbun has also reported that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is considering refitting the ships to become full-blown aircraft carriers, though such a move may face legal hurdles. Japan’s constitution prohibits the country from deploying anything that is classified as an “offensive weapon.”

For now, the Kaga, which will be accompanied by an escort ship and may conduct ad hoc joint drills during its tour, is capable of operating several helicopters simultaneously.

Japan has been somewhat cautious in its approach to naval activity in the region, declining to take part in US-led freedom of navigation operations near Chinese-controlled islands in the South China Sea. In contrast, the UK and France announced in early June that they would be conducting FONOPs in the region.

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