Japan Unveils First 'Big Whale' Attack Submarine As Tensions With China Rise

Japan unveiled the first in its new class of attack submarines Wednesday, as Tokyo forges ahead with its naval expansion amid maritime tensions with China.

The Taigei—or "Big Whale"—submarine was unveiled at a shipyard in Kobe, western Japan, on Wednesday with around 150 people in attendance, including Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi and naval Chief of Staff Hiroshi Yamamura, the Kyodo News Agency reported.

The 3,000-ton attack submarine is built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and is the first of seven planned Taigei-class warships. The Taigei is scheduled to enter service in March 2022 and will be the 22nd submarine of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force.

The Taigei cost some $720 million to build and measures 275 feet in length. It will be crewed by 70 sailors and has a "stealth-like design," Kyodo said. Its lithium-ion batteries will also allow it to remain underwater for longer than Japan's nine Oyashio- and 11 Soryu-class submarines.

Japan is expanding its navy in line with its 2010 National Defense Program Guidelines. The document set out plans to expand Tokyo's submarine fleet from 16 to 22, with an eye on intensified Chinese naval activity around a collection of Japan-administered islands in the East China Sea, to the northeast of Taiwan.

Tokyo refers to the uninhabited archipelago as the Senkaku Islands, while Beijing calls it the Diaoyu Islands. The islands sit on potential oil and natural gas reserves and are located close to important shipping routes and lucrative fishing areas.

Formally claimed by Japan in 1895, the islands have been mostly privately owned by Japanese citizens since, though the U.S. controlled the islands for a short time after World War Two. China began claiming the islands citing historical control in the 1970s. Tensions have been increasing since 2012 when Tokyo bought three of the islands from their private owner.

The unveiling of the Tagei comes days after Chinese ships set a new record for the amount of time spent in Japanese waters near the islands. Two Chinese Coast Guard ships entered waters near the island on Sunday and approached a Japanese fishing boat, the Japan Coast Guard said Tuesday.

The Chinese ships eventually left Japanese territorial waters after 57 hours on Tuesday evening, the Japan Times reported, having previously ignored repeated orders from their Japanese counterparts to do so.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said Tuesday the incident was "very regrettable" and said he had "strongly protested" the action to Beijing via diplomatic channels. Kato also said Japan was determined to protect its territory.

But Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters: "It is China's inherent right to carry out patrolling and law enforcement in the waters of the Diaoyu Islands, and Japan should respect this." He did not elaborate on why the Chinese ships entered Japanese waters, nor why they stayed for a record length of time.

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This file photo shows the flag of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force during a military review at the Ground Self-Defence Force Asaka training ground in Asaka, Japan on October 14, 2018. KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images/Getty