With the United States and its Western partners seeing their forces increasingly overstretched between several fronts globally, particularly in the Pacific theatre where the fast growing capabilities of China and North Korea have threatened their long dominant position, Washington has increasingly called on its allies to provide more support to its efforts in the region. With Japan ranked as a Tier Two military power, fielding the third largest destroyer fleet and third most numerous carrier fleet in the world in the world, the country has long been encouraged to deploy force to the South China Sea to aid the Western Bloc’s efforts to contain Chinese influence in the region. With Japan having recently built four new aircraft carriers, two 27,000 ton Izumo Class and two smaller but still sizeable 19,000 ton Hyuga Class warships, these platforms are set to be key to the country’s power projection capabilities. The Japanese Navy in July 2018 deployed its newest carrier, the second Izumo Class warship Kaga, to the South China sea for patrols which are expected to last several months.
The Izumo Class warships, while termed helicopter destroyers by the Japanese Navy, are in fact advanced light aircraft carriers 23% larger than the British Invincible Class warships, approximately two thirds of the size of Europe’s largest active carrier the Charles De Gaulle. While the lighter Hyuga Class ships were built to deploy helicopters for anti submarine warfare operations to support destroyer fleets at sea, the Izumo Class appeared too large to have been developed for such a role exclusively and was long suspected of having been designed as an aircraft carrier for fixed wing fighter jets - Japan’s first since the Second World War. This was later confirmed, with the Izumo having been purposely built to accommodate the Lockheed Martin F-35B light stealth fighter - with advanced short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) capabilities allowing it to deploy from light carriers with short runways. While the warship Kaga does not currently carry fixed wing fighters, its deployment to the South China Sea and possibly to waters claimed by China are likely to set a precedent which will be met with great apprehension by China. The next time Japanese carriers deploy near its waters, Beijing may reason, the warships could well be deploying advanced stealth fighters to support Western efforts against the East Asian power.
With Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, the ruling party for the vast majority of the country’s post war history which have long been closely aligned with the United States, having strongly pushed for remilitarisation, an expanded defence budget, freedom to launch military interventions abroad, and most recently the development of larger carrier warships capable of deploying fixed wing fighters, the deployment of the Kaga could well be the first of many such interventions by Japan in South East Asia. While Japan in 2017 took steps to considerably increase its involvement in Western led efforts far from its shores, notably participating in military exercises targeting North Korea, deployments to South East Asia are yet further from the country's shores and direct security interests and represent power projection abroad to an even greater extent. The threat to China posed by a Western aligned and increasingly interventionist Japan, which Western powers have long strongly supported in order to aid their own regional efforts, remains a considerable one. While China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is well prepared to counter efforts by the Western Bloc to undermine its regional interests, heavily fortifying the South China Sea and deploying growing numbers of world leading warships, should the world’s third largest economy (Japan) begin to invest heavily in power projection capabilities targeting China, pressure on the PLA's defences will increase profoundly.