Three anonymous sources with knowledge of Japan's navy say that Tokyo's Self Defense Forces will construct two 3,000-ton frigates as well as one 5,000-ton destroyer in the 2018 fiscal year. Japan intends to create a small but highly modern fleet of eight vessels that may also be used for minesweeping and submarine hunting.
Naval shipyards are expected to bid for the contracts to build the eight frigates. Each ship will cost 40-50 billion yen ($353-$443 million) for a total outlay of over $3 billion.
The announcement of the contract comes in the wake of a renewal of territorial squabbles between the East Asian sea powers. Japanese officials have publicly stated that they are concerned about China pressing its claim in the East China Sea, just as Beijing has done to the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea.
The disputed islands in the East China Sea are known by several names. The earliest known source, a 15th century Chinese sea chart, names them the Diaoyu. A 19th century Imperial naval record is the origin of their Japanese name, the Senkaku. The Taiwanese call them the Diaoyutai, while 18th century English explorers dubbed them the Pinnacle Islands.
Regardless of what name one uses, the disputed islands consist of five islets and three rocks, the largest of which is less than five square kilometers. The uninhabited islands were historically part of China, before being annexed by Japan following the First Sino-Japanese War, in 1895. After World War II, the islands were occupied by the United States.
The islands were returned to Japanese control in 1972, but by then a potential treasure trove of oil and natural gas had been identified in the surrounding area. Since then, both China and Taiwan have declared ownership of the islands. China in particular has objected to Japanese activity, including nationalizing several of the islands in 2012, and building a lighthouse in 2014.
The US has supported the Japanese claim in the past. In 2014, President Barack Obama pledged to aid Japan if China attempted a military occupation of the islands. Similarly, President Donald Trump declared US support for the Japanese claim on Tuesday, February 14.
"I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent," said Trump in a joint statement with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Other US leaders, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, have corroborated Trump's promise to support Japan's claim in the region. Mattis took it one step further by pledging that the United States would take a more active role in the dispute than was taken under the previous administration.
China has responded by sailing naval vessels through the disputed waters, doing so now about thrice monthly. "No matter what anyone says or does, it cannot change the fact that the Diaoyu Islands belong to China, and cannot shake China's resolve and determination to protect national sovereignty and territory," foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement.
"We urge the US side to take a responsible attitude, stop making wrong remarks on the issue involving the Diaoyu Islands sovereignty, and avoid making the issue more complicated and bringing instability to the regional situation," said Lu Kang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman.