Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force has sent its biggest warship on a rare long-range mission into the Indian Ocean in a move expected to frustrate China, as the two nations vie for influence among smaller powers across Asia.

U.S. officials monitored closely over the weekend as Tokyo’s Kaga helicopter carrier arrived in Sri Lanka, where China has attempted to build up its own cache through loans to the Sri Lankan government and recently pressured Colombo into ceding control of a major port.

Reuters, which first reported on the Kaga’s arrival in Colombo harbor, framed the development as Tokyo’s highest-profile salvo in a diplomatic battle with China for influence along the region’s vital commercial sea lanes.

The warship’s commander said the Sri Lanka visit is part of an ongoing push by Tokyo to ensure that no single power dominates maritime movement in the region.

“Japan’s government is promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific and this deployment in the Asia Pacific is a component of that strategy,” Rear Adm. Tatsuya Fukuda, the commander of the Kaga and its destroyer escort, told Reuters in his cabin aboard the ship as it steamed for Colombo through the Indian Ocean.

The news agency noted how in competition with China Japan has long provided low-interest loans and aid to Sri Lanka, helping it transform Colombo into a major trans-shipment port tapping the artery of global trade just south of the island that links Europe and the Middle East with Asia.

Analysts say the battle for influence in Sri Lanka may have hit an inflection point recently when Colombo was pressured into selling control of its port of Hambantota to a Chinese state-owned company after falling behind on $1.5 billion in Chinese loans.

The Japan Times reported in late-August that Tokyo had announced it would be holding joint military exercises with five Asian navies and the U.S. during a rare long-term mission to the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.

The Kaga and two other Japanese ships planned to make port calls in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, and conduct joint exercises aimed at bolstering combat skills and improving cooperation with each country’s navy while also linking up with the U.S. Navy, the newspaper reported.

The development comes amid debate in Japan, meanwhile, over whether the government should rewrite its pacifist constitution that technically says the nation has no military. The Japanese constitution was installed more than 70 years ago by American occupiers after World War II.

The famous Article 9 of the document says the Japanese people “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” It adds that the land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.

However, with quiet backing from Washington, Japan has overseen the growth of a Japanese air-, ground- and sea-based military since the mid-1950s all under the guise of the nation’s official Self-Defense Forces, or SDF. According to a 2015 index compiled by Credit Suisse, the Japanese military ranks as the fourth most formidable in the world, trailing only those of the U.S., Russia and China.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has for years called for the constitution to be rewritten. Upon winning re-election last month as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo, Mr. Abe said in a speech that “it’s time to tackle a constitutional revision.”

Source: The Associated Press

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