Amid a flare in the ongoing island dispute that has proven to be a notable bout of tension in long-strained Sino-Japanese relations, Japan has unveiled the Izumo, its largest military vessel since World War II. AP reports:
Japan unveiled on Aug. 6 its biggest warship since World War II, a huge flat-top destroyer that has raised eyebrows in China and elsewhere because it bears a strong resemblance to a conventional aircraft carrier.
The ship, which has a flight deck that is nearly 250 meters long, is designed to carry up to 14 helicopters. Japanese officials say it will be used in national defense–particularly in anti-submarine warfare and border-area surveillance missions–and to bolster the nation’s ability to transport personnel and supplies in response to large-scale natural disasters, like the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
[…]Though technically a destroyer, some experts believe the new Japanese ship could potentially be used in the future to launch fighter jets or other aircraft that have the ability to take off vertically. That would be a departure for Japan, which has one of the best equipped and best trained naval forces in the Pacific but which has not sought to build aircraft carriers of its own because of constitutional restrictions that limit its military forces to a defensive role.
Japan says it has no plans to use the ship in that manner.
The Izumo does not have catapults for launching fighters, nor does it have a “ski-jump” ramp on its flight deck for fixed-wing aircraft launches. [Source]
This news caused much alarm in China’s defense ministry. Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, the postwar “pacifist clause,” officially outlaws war as a means for settling international dispute. An article from Xinhua looks at the Izumo’s historical namesake, and claims that the new ship is in direct violation of Japan’s constitution:
The giant vessel was named Izumo, namesake of a Japanese cruiser once used during the invasion of China in the early 20th century.
[…]Being able to accommodate 14 helicopters, the ship is also available for the US Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. With minor modifications, it can be remodeled to a fully-functioning aircraft carrier, which is generally considered as offensive weapons and therefore prohibited by the Japanese constitution.
The Article 9 of Japan’s current constitution reads that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”
So launching such a de facto aircraft carrier is in flagrant violation of the pacifist clause, and another alarming sign as the Japanese government is mulling to ditch the pacifist constitution and bolster the country’s military forces.
Last year, just as the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute was coming to a head, China unveiled its first aircraft carrier and launched a new destroyer ship. Bloomberg reports on the mutually increasing defense budgets of both Japan and China, and on the warning that China’s Defense Ministry issued to neighbors about Japan’s military buildup:
“Japan should reflect on its history, adhere to self-defense and respect its promise to follow the road of peaceful development,” China’s Defense Ministry said in a faxed statement today, referring to the pacifist constitution Japan adopted after losing the war.
Yesterday’s unveiling of the 19,500-ton Izumo reflects Japan’s push to bolster its maritime forces as it faces off with China over East China Sea islands that both claim. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to boost defense spending for the first time in 11 years coincides with China’s own defense budget expansion of 10.7 percent this year.
The Izumo is a “symbol of Japan’s strong wish to return to its time as a military power,” China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper said in a commentary today. Japan already has two helicopter carriers. [Source]
North Korea has also issued a warning to Japan over the Izumo. While the new Japanese ship is billed as a “helicopter frigate”—keeping semantic tune with the defensive language used to refer to Japan’s unified military forces—an infographic from the Global Times compares the ship to U.S. and Chinese aircraft carriers to make the case that the Izumo could be used to launch fighter jets. Recent reports have hinted that Japan’s “Self-Defense Forces,” may soon be renamed the “National Defense Forces,” freeing them from constitutional restraints. After talks in Tokyo regarding Japanese desires to overhaul defense policies, U.S. officials expressed concern. From the Japan Times:
The United States has expressed concern about Japan’s desire to acquire the ability to attack enemy bases in an overhaul of defense policies pursued by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a government source said in Tokyo.
One of the American officials attending bilateral talks on foreign and defense policy cooperation late last month in Tokyo asked the Japanese side to consider the possible negative fallout on neighboring countries if the Abe administration embarks on such a policy shift, the source said Tuesday.
The U.S. official conveyed Washington’s message that Tokyo should not further worsen relations with China and South Korea, which have been plagued for months by territorial rows, as well as the issue of Japan’s wartime aggression. [Source]
See an English brief of the interim report cited above from Japan’s Ministry of Defense. At ChinaFile, legal scholar Jerome Cohen explains Sino-Japanese tensions and the possibility of mitigation through international legal regimes rather than force. Meanwhile, a recent survey found that more than 90 percent of Chinese and Japanese citizens hold an unfavorable view of the other country, a significant spike from previous polls. Also see prior CDT coverage of Sino-Japanese relations.