Friday, October 19, 2018

JS Kaga visits Singapore as part of Indo Southeast Asia Deployment ISEAD 2018

You choose your words carefully when describing the JS Kaga (DDH-184), the Japanese ship that arrived at Changi Naval Base at 9am on Thursday morning (18 Oct'18) with her destroyer escort, JS Inazuma (DD-105), for a six-day visit to Singapore.

Though she is painted haze grey and conforms to the mental picture most people would have of an aircraft carrier, with a flight deck stretching the 248-metre length of the ship from bow to stern, the Japanese describe her simply as a "helicopter destroyer".

Looking every bit a warship in her grey warpaint and armed with guns, missiles and anti-submarine helicopters, the 19,500-ton Kaga does not serve with a navy but the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF).

You watch your metaphors too when mulling over whether Kaga's arrival was intended to send any signals to defence watchers. Regional defence chiefs are now in Singapore for the 12th ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM), which will take place over the duration of Kaga's visit to the Lion City. In addition to defence ministers from the 10 ASEAN nations, the ADMM-Plus summit involves defence ministers from Australia, China, India, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia, the United States and of course, Japan.

Asked about the timing, the JMSDF admiral commanding the deployment brushed it off as "a coincidence".

Stretch that metaphor and one realises that Kaga's port call comes close on the heels of last Sunday's Self-Defense Forces Day, which was marked by a parade, drive past of tanks and flypast by warplanes and combat helicopters. After reviewing SDF troops and their armaments, Japan's Prime Minister Shizo Abe used the occasion to renew his pledge to push for a revision of Japan's war-renouncing constitution, specifically Article 9 that expressly forbids mention of SDF forces.

The delicate handling of Japan's military posture may sound petty until one realises that Tokyo pulled out Kaga's sister ship, the JS Izumo, from South Korea's International Fleet Review just last week after a disagreement over what flag Izumo should fly. The diplomatic kerfluffle was triggered by Seoul's insistence that the Rising Sun flag, which reminds Koreans of Japan's militaristic past, not be flown on the Izumo during the fleet review.

Decades after the end of the Pacific War, wounds run deep in Asian countries once occupied by Japan.

Tokyo therefore realises it must tread carefully even as it adjusts the SDF's defence posture overseas. The JMSDF has maintained a presence in regional waterways for years, perhaps on account of the fact that some 90 per cent of Japanese oil imports from the Middle East have to sail through regional sea lanes. So while the United States makes headlines every now and then with its assertive rendition of freedom of navigation operations spearheaded by US Navy warships, it is worth remembering that Tokyo is also fully aware that a forward presence in Southeast Asia is necessary to watch over its economic lifelines.

Despite the high-profile US Navy presence in the Indo Pacific, it may surprise you that apart from the Thais, the Japanese are among the top two visitors to the Republic of Singapore Navy's Changi Naval Base. JMSDF ships use the base and others in the region to sustain a presence far from home but many of these routine deployments go unpublicised.

Singapore's strategic location at the southernmost tip of Asia, which is the swing around point for all ships using the straits of Malacca and Singapore to move from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, has made the city-state a popular port call for regional navies.

According to Singapore's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), Singapore facilitates the transit of vessels from many countries through our ports and facilities. Navies across the world, from Brunei, China, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand and the US, to name a few, routinely visit RSS Singapura - Changi Naval Base (CNB) for refuelling and replenishment. MINDEF's records show that ever since CNB began operations in 2001, the naval base flanking the Singapore Strait has hosted more than 2000 visits by foreign warships from 30 countries, a testament to the strong friendships forged between the Republic of Singapore Navy and other navies. In other words, a foreign ship docks at CNB about once every three days.

Enter Kaga's latest foray into the region and the media attention generated at each port of call. Her voyage comes a year after JS Izumo, the name-ship of the JMSDF's largest class of ship, made her maiden trip to Southeast Asia. JS Kaga is accompanied by the destroyer escorts, JS Inazuma and JS Suzutsuki (DD-117. This ship did not join Kaga in Singapore as she is en route to Japan). Kaga's longest deployment from Japanese home waters has seen her visit the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India. Singapore is her last stopover before she returns to Japan via the South China Sea.

One can tell the Japanese are serious about projecting the right image for Kaga when they dedicate a microsite in Japanese and English on the JMSDF webpage to her two-month deployment. What's more, they coined a new acronym, ISEAD 2018, for this deployment. This stands for Indo Southeast Asia Deployment.

There are two stakeholders intended for this public relations blitz: Japan's Asian neighbours and her domestic audience. The former need to be desensitised to the notion of Japanese ships operating in regional waters while Japanese nationals need to be exposed to and accepting of Tokyo's push to deploy the SDF on missions farther and of longer duration than ever before, even as Article 9 awaits a review.

This year, the Japanese have apparently made special efforts to ensure its message is not lost in translation. At the media briefing aboard Kaga, Rear Admiral Tatsuya Fukuda, commander of Escort Flotilla 4 and the senior JMSDF officer leading ISEAD 2018, delivered a four-minute speech on the deployment and took questions from the media in English, surprising even Japanese correspondents who expected his remarks to be delivered in Japanese. This was unlike last year's briefing aboard Izumo, which was done in Japanese with the sparse English translation after lengthy remarks in Japanese leaving journalists to surmise that key sound bites had been somehow omitted.

Seen at face value, Kaga's presence appears to underline Tokyo's intention to build on Izumo's high-profile regional tour last year. Implicit in this deployment is the message that Southeast Asian nations should regard JMSDF visits as the new normal.

In this regard, one can expect Tokyo to play the long game by using its largest JMSDF vessels in emissaries of naval diplomacy, during which joint exercises with regional navies serve as confidence-building measures. During ISEAD 2018, the JMSDF's decision to step up engagements by planning, coordinating and hosting exercises with partner navies during Kaga's deployment marks a noteworthy departure from its largely passive presence during Izumo's voyage, which saw the ship joined in maritime training hosted by other naval forces. 

There is also real training value for JMSDF personnel as they navigate regional sea lanes, especially through choke points such as the Straits of Malacca and Singapore which are among the world's busiest sea lanes. The experience running a big ship through narrow and congested sea lanes, constrained by the traffic separation scheme (TSS) as AIS collision alarms flash regular warnings and as some vessels ignore rules of the road is something that simulator training cannot faithfully replicate. It has to be experienced to be appreciated.

Over time and with successive deployments, the JMSDF will enlarge the pool of personnel who have experience sailing in the region even as their port calls become less newsworthy. Tokyo will come to regard regional waters as its traditional training or deployment areas, especially after neighbouring countries grow accustomed to the JMSDF's annual flag-waving deployments.

There is, however, a new aspect peculiar to ISEAD 2018 that last year's deployment of Izumo did not have to contend with. Kaga's name once graced one of six Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carriers that launched the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December, 1941, bringing the United States into the Pacific War. When you strip away all the niceties that downplay Kaga's obvious naval capabilities, her farthest voyage from Japan serves as a trial balloon to test the waters - figuratively speaking - and gauge the readiness of regional partners in accepting a man-of-war whose name echoes of Japan's militaristic past.

With Singapore marking her last port call before her return trip to Japan, Tokyo must count itself fortunate that Kaga's name has not rankled regional sensitivities.

When Kaga sets sail for Japan next Tuesday (23 Oct'18), you can bet the planning cycle for next year's instalment of ISEAD will attempt to set the bar even higher.

For Southeast Asia's maritime nations, this means adusting to the new reality that the JMSDF can be expected to assert itself even more in years to come and will return time and again to regional waterways, in peace but in strength.

You may also like:
Straits Times commentary on JS Izumo's 2017 deployment. Japan's warship on long and distant service. Click here

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