18,000-Ton Submarine in Japan Port Shows Depth of U.S. Ties

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The U.S.S. Michigan
The U.S.S. Michigan, one of the largest U.S. submarines, in the harbor at Yokosuka, south of Tokyo. Photographer: Isabel Reynolds/Bloomberg

The USS Michigan is an 18,000-ton demonstration of deepening U.S.-Japan military ties against the backdrop of an increasingly muscular China.

Equipped with about 150 Tomahawk guided missiles, the 170-meter (560-foot), nuclear-powered submarine glided into the port of Yokosuka earlier this month. The floating display of strike capability arrived just 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Tokyo as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was preparing to ram legislation through parliament to let Japan defend its only formal ally.

The legal changes back up Abe’s 2014 reinterpretation of the nation’s pacifist constitution and would allow Japanese troops to fulfill guidelines set in April on expanding cooperation with the U.S. around the world. A parliamentary committee has begun final debate on the measures before a planned vote Wednesday, which could clear the way for passage in the lower house as soon as Thursday.

“Japan cannot defend the lives and property of its people alone,” Yukio Okamoto, a diplomat-turned-political analyst, told a parliamentary hearing about the bills on Monday. “These laws will strengthen the alliance with the U.S.”

The Michigan’s newly appointed captain, Joe Turk, showed reporters around the Ohio-class submarine, including the torpedo launcher and a lock-out chamber that lets special forces divers exit while submerged. Able to produce oxygen and fresh water, the Michigan’s deployments are limited only by the food on board.

Japan has stepped up joint activities with the U.S. in recent years, particularly training for its nascent marine corps such as the re-taking of captured islands. Japan is embroiled in separate disputes over the sovereignty of islands with China, Russia and South Korea.

Pacifist Constitution

Ships from the two forces conducted a monthlong joint cruise in the South China Sea in October, and Japanese troops are currently taking part in an exercise with U.S. personnel on the sidelines of a larger U.S.-Australian exercise near Darwin.

Japan’s inability to participate in “collective self-defense” limits its ability to perform some types of exercises with the U.S., according to Narushige Michishita, a professor of security studies at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

Rather than take part in joint search-and-destroy exercises while in Japan, the U.S. Michigan’s crew of about 165 kept co-operation with Japanese counterparts low key. They visited one another’s ships and discussed training topics.

Many Japanese are concerned about the potential threat from China as the neighbors jostle over rights to a chain of uninhabited East China Sea islands.

Polls show people are also wary of the closer military links to the U.S. that the new laws could bring. A survey published by the Asahi newspaper on July 13 found 31 percent of respondents said the coming changes would help keep Japan secure, while 42 percent said they wouldn’t.

“The good news is that the Self-Defense Forces will now be able to work very closely, not only with the U.S., but other countries,” Michishita said.

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