James Holmes

Japan’s Grandstanding in the East China Sea

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James Holmes

Japan’s Grandstanding in the East China Sea

The Naval Diplomat salutes the nonchalance with which Japan “unveiled” its new carrier-like helicopter destroyer.

Nifty bit of one-upmanship, Japan. The Naval Diplomat salutes the nonchalance with which the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) "unveiled" the 22DDH, its latest light aircraft carrier— I mean… helicopter destroyer — on Tuesday. It left the impression of a service that's accustomed to accomplishing great things, and thus takes them in stride. Cool beats braggadocio any day.

By "unveiled," incidentally, news reports evidently mean the JMSDF conducted its equivalent to a formal christening ceremony for Izumo. You know, patriotic speeches, bottles of champagne broken across the bow, that sort of thing. Shipwrights laid the flattop's keel in 2011. It has been in the water awhile — that's the launch — but it has a long way to go before being commissioned into the Self-Defense Fleet in 2015. That's when the ship goes on regular duty. So … much remains to be done to make Izumo a working ship.

But I digress. Mature naval powers construct and deploy warships in a matter-of-fact way, without the chest-thumping that's standard fare for a certain big Asian power across the Yellow Sea from Japan. They take care of business rather than monologuing about how feeble competitors are, how inevitable their defeat is, how Asia will soon be theirs, yadda yadda yadda.

Think about it. Why all the pomp and circumstance that accompanies ship launches, christenings, and commissionings? Well, ceremony conveys power, purpose, and resolve to important audiences, both domestic and foreign.

Izumo is an impressive-looking vessel, with clean lines and a flight deck roughly as long as that of a U.S. Navy amphibious helicopter carrier. (It displaces far less than an LHA or LHD, however.) It sports a sizable complement of helicopters. Should the JMSDF acquire vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft, a handful could presumably operate from the its flight deck — much as Harrier jump jets fly off American flight decks.

The 22DDH is a serious platform. Displaying it reminds the Japanese people that theirs is a seafaring society guarded by a world-class if modest-sized navy. Ceremonies, then, are a form of upkeep for a nation's maritime strategic culture. They rally popular support for seaborne ventures. That's especially important for Japan, which is mulling a return to normalcy in world affairs after decades of pacifism.

Ceremonies also put allies, prospective allies, and prospective opponents on notice that Japan remains a naval power to be reckoned with. Tokyo reminds Washington that it remains a trustworthy partner, able to shoulder its share of the security burden. Sea powers like Australia and India consider Japan to be an attractive partner, with a navy capable of helping mold events in distant waters. And, of course, the merger of capability and resolve conveys strength, helping discourage rivals from making mischief at Japan’s expense.

Demeanor, then, helps signal steadfastness. Confidence is infectious. Mariners who exude it without boasting supplement official diplomatic interchange, making a subtle but real political impact.

Stay cool, JMSDF.