Japan's largest warship sailed into the disputed South China Sea with Asian military guests on board, in defiance of Chinese assertiveness. According to reports, the guests were taken to witness helicopters looping over the tropical waters and gunners blasting target buoys.
China claims almost whole of the waterway through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year, much of it to and from Japanese ports. Apart from Beijing, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have rival claims in the energy-rich sea.
But, Japan worries that China is cementing its control in the South China Sea with manmade island bases, arms sales and development aid.
"We are not just here to show our presence, but from the outside that is what it looks like," Rear Admiral Yoshihiro Goga, the commander of the mission, told Reuters, aboard the Izumo-class helicopter carrier.
On Monday, military officers from the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) boarded the 248-metre carrier in Singapore. It returned on Friday after demonstrating naval skills and kit Tokyo hopes will help it bolster alliances in the region.
The Izumo turned back to Singapore before crossing a boundary known as the nine-dash-line into what China claims are its waters.
Reports said that the high-profile cruise was part of a hitherto unseen coordinated push by Japan's Self Defense Forces and defense bureaucrats. The sole purpose of it was to bolster ties with countries ringing the contested waters. It also marked a concerted push into military diplomacy by hawkish Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Last week, Japan held a military technology seminar near Tokyo for representatives from Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore. While, this week it invited ASEAN officers to a disaster relief drill in Tokyo.
Abe's government believes that Japan may be placed better to move Southeast Asian nations away from Chinese influence than its US allies with a gentler approach that emphasizes a common Asian heritage, two sources with knowledge of the diplomatic strategy told Reuters earlier.
The US has confronted China directly by sending warships close to China's island bases in the South China Sea. But, Japan has shied away from similar provocations so far. However, apart from a brief radar contact with an unidentified aircraft announced by the ship's public address system the carrier, the ship sailed on unmolested.