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Japan to expand MSDF 'strategic port calls' in Indian, Pacific oceans to boost free navigation

In this July 11, 2017 file photo, the helicopter carrier Kaga docks at the Maritime Self-Defense Force base in Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture. (Mainichi)

Japan will boost its "strategic port calls," visits to foreign ports by Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) vessels to encourage defense cooperation.

The government will cooperate with the United States, India, Britain and France on the initiative -- part of Tokyo's "free and open" strategy in the Indian and Pacific Oceans -- and will also discuss the matter with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during his visit to Japan on Jan. 18. The move is designed to check the expanding influence of China, which is developing ports and other infrastructure along the shores of the Indian Ocean.

The strategic port calls are made in cooperation with the U.S. and other nations that share, with Japan, values such as democracy and the rule of law. Tokyo also considers them an integral part of emphasizing the importance of free navigation, through MSDF exchanges and training with local defense agencies in coastal nations such as Myanmar and Malaysia. These programs and visits aim to help these countries improve their defense capabilities while at the same time expanding the MSDF's regional presence.

The Japanese government began requesting cooperation on expanded MSDF port calls in September last year, at a summit of the foreign ministers of Japan, India and the U.S., and at a "two-plus-two" meeting of the foreign and defense ministers of Japan and Britain. The effort is expected to continue when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets Turnbull, and at two-plus-two meetings with France later this month.

In line with its 2017 activities, the MSDF is set to dispatch its helicopter carrier Izumo to the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean in summer this year, to conduct exchanges with coastal nations' defense agencies and offer training for young officers. Japan's Defense Ministry is also looking to boost these efforts with MSDF vessels going to and from deployments with an international anti-piracy force operating in waters off Somalia.

While cooperating with the U.S., Australia, India, Britain and France, Japan also intends to deepen ties with coastal countries through contributing Japanese expertise on ocean surveillance, disaster relief, humanitarian aid and international law.

Meanwhile, China continues to build military strongholds in the South China Sea, and is developing major ports along the shores of the Indian Ocean in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Oman as part of its "One Belt, One Road" initiative to create a 21st-century version of the Silk Road.

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