China Releases Image Of Japanese Carrier Sailing Right Alongside Its Own Carrier

Japan’s use of its aircraft carrier to closely shadow China’s own is highly unusual.

byJoseph Trevithick|
China photo


The Chinese government has released video footage and pictures, seen at the top of this story and below, showing Japan's aircraft carrier Izumo sailing remarkably close to the People's Liberation Army Navy's own flattop Liaoning and its escorts during recent exercises in the Pacific. This comes after Japanese officials announced plans to set up a military hotline with their counterparts in China to help de-escalate potential alterations in the future.

The office of the Joint Staff of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) first announced that it had observed Liaoning, along with a Type 052D destroyer, a Type 054A frigate, and a Type 901 replenishment ship, transiting from the East China Sea into the western Pacific Ocean southeast of Okinawa on Dec. 15. The Chinese flotilla then moved farther southeast and conducted a series of drills, including the launch and recovery of J-15 fighter jets from the Liaoning, as well as flights by Z-9 and Z-18 helicopters. The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels subsequently returned to the East China Sea on Dec. 25.

Pictures the Japanese government released of the Chinese ships after they transited from the East China Sea into the Pacific. From top to bottom: the aircraft carrier Liaoning, the Type 054A frigate, the Type 052D destroyer, and the Type 901 replenishment ship., Japanese MoD
A map Japanese officials released with a red dot showing the general area where Chinese naval forces conducted their exercises earlier in December., Japanese MoD

Japanese authorities had previously said that Izumo, together with the destroyer Akizuki, had monitored the Chinese activities. JSDF P-1 and P-3 maritime patrol planes had also helped keep an eye on the PLAN exercises, and Japanese fighter jets were scrambled at times in response to Chinese J-15s flying from Liaoning. Footage showing a Japanese F-15J Eagle fighter jet intercepting a Chinese J-15, shot from the latter aircraft's cockpit during these recent drills, has been released, as well.

In general, one country's naval vessels shadowing those of another in international waters, especially when foreign warships come relatively close to a nation's territorial waters, happens on a regular basis around the world. At present, there is no indication one way or another that either Chinese or Japanese forces acted in dangerous or otherwise unprofessional ways during their encounters earlier this month.

At the same time, it is highly unusual to employ an aircraft carrier in this role and to have it operate so close to the other navy's ships. Japan, like other countries, more typically employs smaller vessels for shadowing missions. The JSDF seems to have clearly intended, at least in part, to send a signal to its Chinese counterparts about its capabilities and willingness to employ them with these relatively intimate interactions in the western Pacific.

While it is not clear how close the Japanese carrier ever came to any of the PLAN vessels, the distances do appear to be relatively short for such large warships. This degree of proximity would help explain how Japanese forces were able to take the close-up shots of these Chinese counterparts operating in the Pacific that had been included in previous JSDF Joint Staff press releases.

A picture Japanese officials previously released showing a J-15 fighter jet taking off from Liaoning while a Z-9 helicopter acts as a plane guard. Based on the sharpness of its focus and its perspective, along with what we know now of the proximity between the two ships, this picture may well have been shot from the deck of Izumo., Japanese MoD
Other pictures the Japanese government previously released of Liaoning and elements of its air wing during recent exercises in the Pacific., Japanese MoD
Japanese MoD
Japanese MoD

The presence of the Chinese ships in the Pacific south of Japan reflects the PLAN's ever-increasing operational tempo, as well as its increasing ability to project significant naval power beyond China's immediate periphery. In October, another group of PLAN warships joined naval vessels from Russia on a joint patrol that almost saw them circumnavigate Japan's Home Islands, a significant demonstration of China's current maritime capabilities.

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force has itself increased the scale and scope of its activities in recent years, including taking part in a growing number of multi-national naval and other kinds of drills in the Pacific. Just this year, Izumo hosted U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs in an exercise that saw fighters fly from a Japanese carrier for the first time since World War II.

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All of this also comes amid a period of very high friction between Chinese and Japanese authorities. In particular, the government in Japan under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has decided to take a much more outspoken position in support of the government on Taiwan. Japanese officials have indicated that they would support a U.S.-led military response to any Chinese intervention on that island and have been critical of Beijing's coercive behavior toward authorities in Taipei. 

This is a major shift in Japanese policy that has drawn the ire of officials in Beijing, who view Taiwan as a rogue province. Kishida has also been openly critical of China's crackdowns on pro-democracy advocates and others in Hong Kong and on ethnic Uighurs in its western Xinjiang province. Japan and China continue to have a long-standing and fierce dispute over control of a chain of uninhabited islands that lie between Taiwan and Okinawa, as well. 

For its part, the regime in Beijing has been increasingly critical of Japan's efforts to expand and modernize its military capabilities in recent years, as well as efforts to reform or even eliminate Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution that bans the country from using its forces for any purpose beyond self-defense. Izumo, which Japanese authorities asserted for years was a helicopter carrier incapable of carrying out anything that could be described as an offensive military mission, is one significant element of this debate. In 2018, officials in Japan admitted that Izumo and her sister ship Kaga had been designed from the outset to be readily convertible to support fixed-wing aircraft. Izumo is now expected to be fully converted into a true light aircraft carrier capable of accommodating an air wing that includes Japanese F-35B Joint Strike Fighters by 2024.

Japan's two Izumo class aircraft carriers in port., Kyodo via AP

Amid these growing tensions, Japan's Ministry of Defense announced on Dec. 28 that it had agreed to establish a hotline with Chinese military officials specifically to provide a channel to defuse potential crises. The Chinese government did not directly confirm these plans, which emerged from a phone call between Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe on Monday. The Chinese Defense Ministry did issue a statement attributed to Wei that said the two men had talked about ways to "prevent the escalation of conflicts and continuously improve the level of defense co-operation," along with other issues.

While it remains to be seen when this hotline might be formally established and how it might actually be utilized, the interactions between Izumo and Liaoning, as well as the latter's escorts, earlier this month highlight exactly the kind of situation where such a communications channel might come into play. Beyond that, Japan's very close monitoring of these Chinese drills in the Pacific simply underscores the growing potential for more serious altercations between the two countries' navies.

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