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Japanese Destroyers Head to the South China Sea

SNA (Tokyo) — Japan has launched three military ships into the South China Sea, a move which could potentially stoke tensions with its giant Asian neighbor.

On August 26, three Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) ships, the Kaga, a helicopter carrier, and two escort destroyers, Inazuma and Suzutsuki, sailed south in cooperation with the US military. The 27,000-ton Kaga is the largest ship in the Japanese fleet, launched this March and capable of carrying up to fourteen helicopters. The total number of MSDF personnel on board these three ships is around 800. The destroyers plan to visit India, Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines.

On Saturday, the US Navy’s Ronald Reagan Strike Group joined the Japanese mission for exercises, all of them conducted in the South China Sea.

China, which claims a special interest in these seas, responded by deploying advanced missile systems into the area.

The Japanese and US governments say that these actions are for the sole purpose of military training and improving the Japanese flotilla’s tactical skills. Nevertheless, many see this as a US-Japan surveillance mission.

On the other hand, China apparently perceives Japan’s deployment of the Kaga and its escorts as threatening island territories that they have claimed to exercise sovereignty over. An article in China’s Global Times recently asserted, “Any practice to follow the United States to stress the so-called ‘freedom of navigation’ operations in the South China Sea is without doubt a provocation against China.” Before the launch of the MSDF ships, Chinese President Xi Jinping himself had declared to US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that China would not give up “even one inch” of territory.

The Japanese Ministry of Defense recently published its 2018 Defense Program which asserts the aim of stabilizing the Asia-Pacific region and to promote a peaceful security environment in the neighborhood. The Kaga’s deployment on its two-month mission appears to be part of this effort.

Also, on Sunday, the Defense Ministry revealed its plans to equip a new Aegis destroyer with the Standard Missile-6 (SM-6) by 2020. The budget for this development is estimated at around 13 billion yen (about US$118 million).

In the Abe administration’s view, China is pursuing a policy of a territorial expansionism by claiming territories such as the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands in order to control international waters.

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