JAPAN has unveiled its largest warship built since the Second World War, as the Philippines took delivery of a 3,250-ton former US Coast Guard cutter, further evidence of the nascent naval arms race in the Pacific region as China builds military strength.
The new Japanese ship, the Izumo, is being classed as a helicopter-destroyer. It has an 820 feet long flight deck and is designed to carry up to 14 helicopters. Japanese officials say it will be used in national defence – 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.
Though the ship has been in the works since 2009, its unveiling yesterday comes as Japan and China are locked in a dispute over several small islands located between southern Japan and Taiwan. For months, ships from both countries have been conducting patrols around the isles, called the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyutai in China.
The tensions over the islands, along with China’s heavy spending on defence and military modernisation, have heightened calls in Japan for beefed-up naval and air forces. China recently began operating an aircraft carrier that it refurbished after purchasing from Russia, and is reportedly moving forward with the construction of another that is domestically built.
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.
Meanwhile, the Philippines yesterday celebrated the arrival of a decommissioned US Coast Guard cutter that will become its meagre navy’s second largest ship as it attempts to counter Chinese territorial claims.
President Benigno Aquino III saluted as the cutter, renamed Philippine navy frigate BRP Ramon Alcaraz, docked in Subic Bay north-west of Manila. A part of the former US naval base will soon be turned into a Philippine military hub after the government approved a plan to shift its assets closer to the disputed islands in the South China Sea.
The Alcaraz is the Philippine navy’s second largest vessel after another decommissioned cutter that was donated by Washington in 2011.
That ship, the 3,390-ton frigate BRP Gregorio del Pilar, has patrolled disputed waters and became entangled last year in a standoff with Chinese vessels at Scarborough Shoal, a sprawling fishing ground more than 160 miles west of Subic.
Philippine navy chief vice-admiral Jose Luis Alano said the Alcaraz will also soon be deployed to patrol disputed waters. He said the Philippines is considering adding a third former US Coast Guard cutter to its fleet.
A military brass band played nationalist songs and a few hundred students waved small Philippine flags in yesterday’s ceremony as a 21-gun salute thundered in the background.
“It will further intensify our patrolling of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and our capability to quell any threat and bad elements, respond to search and rescue operations and take care of our marine resources,” Mr Aquino told the crowd.
China, Taiwan and Vietnam claim the entire South China Sea while Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines have partial claims on areas believed to have rich deposits of oil and natural gas.