TOKYO – Japan is set to unveil its biggest warship since World War II on Tuesday amid tensions with China following maritime skirmishes between the two nations over disputed islands.
Tokyo’s military is holding a ceremony later in the day in the port city of Yokohama to show off its new 248-metre (810-feet) helicopter carrier, which will be a centerpiece of its naval power.
The vessel was announced several years ago but the ceremony comes as the conservative government mulls boosting military capabilities with debate swirling over a possible overhaul of Tokyo’s pacifist constitution.
The Japanese-built carrier can accommodate nine helicopters and is expected to play a major role in disaster and rescue missions, as well as defending sea lanes and Japanese territory, according to the defense ministry. It is unclear when it will go into service.
The navy’s biggest vessels currently are a pair of smaller helicopter carriers.
Less than two weeks ago, the Chinese coastguard entered waters disputed with Japan for the first time, upping the ante in a festering row over ownership of the Senkakus, which Beijing also claims and calls the Diaoyus.
The rocky islands are located in rich fishing grounds in the East China Sea and are believed to harbor vast natural resources below their seabed.
The incursion came as Japan’s defense ministry recommended establishing amphibious units and acquiring surveillance drones, similar to the US Marines, to protect its claim on outlying islands.
Tokyo is also locked in a separate territorial dispute with Seoul.
Japan’s well-funded and well-equipped military is referred to as the Self-Defense Forces, and barred from taking aggressive action.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been mulling a beefed-up military, which would require changing the constitution imposed on Japan by the US and its allies following WWII.
A possible overhaul of the constitution has stirred strong emotions among Japan’s neighbors, which have long maintained that Tokyo has never come to terms with its militaristic past, including the brutal 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean peninsula.
Last year, China commissioned its first aircraft carrier as part of a military build-up that has alarmed its regional neighbors as Washington ramps up its focus on Asia.
The country’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, went into service in September in a symbolic milestone for China’s increasingly muscular military.
However, the vessel still requires a carrier group including destroyers, frigates and submarines while fighter jets need more training to be operational, according to navy officials.
China has also generated concern with double-digit rises in its annual defense budget – set at 10.7 percent for 2013 – with experts saying their actual military spending is substantially higher than the publicized totals.