Size matters. But rhetoric matters even more. Is the Izumo, the ship Japan calls a “helicopter destroyer,” really an “aircraft carrier in disguise,” as Chinese commentators allege? The vessel was commissioned into the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) in late March: Judging from the number of stories repeating the phrase “aircraft carrier in disguise” since then, many foreign commentators seem to think so. This suggests that Beijing, not Tokyo, is telling the more compelling story about Japan’s purposes in putting aviation-capable ships to sea.
This comes as little shock. For all its virtues, democratic Japan isn’t forceful about or adept at telling its story when it comes to military matters. But seizing control of language comes as second nature to China’s ruling Communist Party — descended from founding chairman Mao Zedong, who taught that peacetime politics is merely war without bloodshed and that there can never be too much deception in war. Beijing isn’t citing Japan’s bloody past just to fire up patriotic Chinese. Calibrating language to foreign audiences is standard practice for Chinese officialdom. In this case, the message is that Japan’s imperial itch is back; the island nation is rearming to terrorize Asia once again; Asians should worry and Washington should abandon its long-standing ally lest it be complicit in aggression.