MSDF training sub to visit Philippines; two escort ships to go on to port call in Vietnam

Japan has confirmed that a Maritime Self-Defense Force submarine will visit the Philippines for the first time in more than a decade, while two ships escorting the sub will continue on to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay for an unprecedented port call and training exercises.

The MSDF said in a press release dated Tuesday that the submarine Oyashio, which is used for training purposes, would be accompanied by two escort ships, the Ariake and the Setogiri, when the vessels set sail Saturday for annual exercises that are slated to wrap up April 27.

All three vessels would visit the Philippines’ Subic Bay, former home to a U.S. naval base, for open sea drills. Some 500 personnel, including 55 officer candidates, are to take part in the exercises.

The voyage would likely take them through both the East China Sea, where Tokyo is embroiled in a dispute with Beijing over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, as well as the South China Sea, home to a number of other territorial disputes between China and other Southeast Asian claimants.

China lays claim to most of the South China Sea, through which $5 billion in global trade passes each year, and has constructed artificial islands in the waters — with some home to military-grade airfields, radar systems and weapons. Its aggressive moves in the waters have riled neighboring claimants.

The decision to send the vessels to the Philippines, one of the most vocal critics of China’s massive land-reclamation projects in waters it, too, claims, is likely to draw fire from Beijing. Top Chinese officials have slammed Japan’s push to shore up smaller regional claimants to the waters, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei saying earlier this month that Beijing was keeping a watchful eye on Tokyo’s moves in the area.

The visit to Vietnam — another claimant to parts of the South China Sea — is also likely to spur an angry reaction from China.

Tokyo has ramped up its aid to both Manila and Hanoi, leasing patrol aircraft to the Philippines and building stronger defense ties with Vietnam.

Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani plans to visit Manila in April for talks on further deepening security ties, including the possible expansion of joint exercises between the MSDF and the Philippine Navy.

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