Last week, the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) has dispatched the JS Ise, a 1 3,950-ton Hyūga-class helicopter destroyer, through the South China Sea to participate in the Multilateral Naval Exercise Komodo (MNEK) 2016 hosted by the Indonesian Navy on April 12-16, according to Japanese media reports.
MNEK will take place in the waters off the western Indonesian city of Padang, the capital of the province of West Sumatra, and focus on maritime peacekeeping operations, humanitarian aid, and disaster relief scenarios. The last (and first) MNEK was held in 2014 near Batam, Indonesia.
The chief of staff of the JMSDF, Admiral Tomohisa Takei, told reporters that he hopes Japan’s participation in MNEK will help sharpen the JMSDF’s tactical skills, build trust, and deepen cooperation among participating countries.
According to JMSDF officials interviewed by The Japan Times, the passage of the JS Ise through the South China Sea has nothing to do with the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation operations near Chinese-occupied artificial islands in the area.
However, an unnamed Japanese official told Sankei Shimbun that the presence of the JS Ise in the South China Sea is sending a “strong message” to China and its building activities there. The Japanese warship also made a port call in Subic Bay in the Philippines last week.
Another unnamed Japanese defense official speaking to Yomiuri Shimbun said that the JS Ise’s visit to the Philippines was “aimed at promoting friendly relations, but it also includes a strong message to keep China in check.” A small flotilla of JMSDF warships was also slated to pay a port visit to Vietnam this month, but until now no news has emerged whether this port call took place just yet.
During a March 2016 press conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei commented on Japanese warships transiting the South China Sea: “Japan once illegally occupied China’s islands in the South China Sea during WWII. We are on high alert against Japan’s attempt to return to the South China Sea through military means.”
The JS Ise ‘helicopter destroyer’ is an aircraft carrier in disguise and one of the most advanced anti-submarine warfare platforms of the JMSDF. It can carry up to 11 SH-60J/K Seahawk anti-submarine helicopters, but could also be modified to accommodate F-35B Joint Strike Fighters or MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.
JS Ise also was the flagship of a flotilla that participated in an annual JMSDF-U.S. Navy war game, codenamed Guam Exercise (Guamex), near the U.S.-owned island of Guam in the northwestern Pacific Ocean in January 2016 (See: ”US and Japan Hold Naval Drills off Guam”).