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Japan to Send Largest Warship to South China Sea: Reuters Sources

TOKYO — Japan plans to dispatch its largest warship on a three-month tour through the South China Sea beginning in May, Reuters cited three sources as saying on Monday.

NBC News was not immediately able to verify the report but if confirmed it would be Tokyo's biggest show of naval force in the region since World War Two.

China claims almost all the disputed waters and its growing military presence has fueled concern in Japan and the West, with the United States holding regular air and naval patrols to ensure freedom of navigation.

Image: A helicopter lands on the Izumo
A helicopter lands on the Izumo on Dec. 6, 2016. Kim Kyung Hoon / Reuters, file

The Izumo helicopter carrier will make stops in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka before joining the Malabar joint naval exercise with Indian and U.S. naval vessels in the Indian Ocean in July.

It will return to Japan in August, the sources said.

"The aim is to test the capability of the Izumo by sending it out on an extended mission," said one of the sources who have knowledge of the plan, asking not to be identified because he is not authorized to talk to the media. "It will train with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea."

A spokesman for Japan's Maritime Self Defense Force declined to comment.

Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei also claim parts of the sea which has rich fishing grounds, oil and gas deposits and through which around $5 trillion of global sea-borne trade passes each year.

Japan does not have any claim to the waters, but has a separate maritime dispute with China in the East China Sea.

Japan's flag-flying operation comes as the United States under President Donald Trump appears to be taking a tougher line with China. Washington has criticized China's construction of man-made islands and a build-up of military facilities that it worries could be used to restrict free movement.

Beijing in January said it had "irrefutable" sovereignty over the disputed islands after the White House vowed to defend "international territories."

Related: U.S. Flexes Its Military Muscle Off China

The 817-foot-long Izumo is as large as Japan's World War Two-era carriers and can operate up to nine helicopters. It resembles the amphibious assault carriers used by U.S. Marines, but lacks their well deck for launching landing craft and other vessels.

Japan has in recent years been stretching the limits of its post-war, pacifist constitution. It has designated the Izumo as a destroyer because the constitution forbids the acquisition of offensive weapons.

Based in Yokosuka, the Izumo's primary mission is anti-submarine warfare.