Japan’s plan to retrofit its 27,000-ton Izumoclass helicopter destroyers into aircraft carriers has Beijing worried. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the move could in effect change the warships’ use from self-defense to military expansion, rather than a simple boost to their combat capabilities.

The ministry also warned that if Tokyo was bent on military buildup, it could risk putting the recent thaw in relations between the two nations back on ice.

“Making an aggressive move like this may drive the country to repeat its militaristic history,” the nationalist Global Times also warned in its report. Ties between China and Japan had been restored after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Beijing in October.

The 248-meter Izumoclass helicopter destroyers are now the largest surface combatants of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force since World War II, bearing a strong resemblance to conventional aircraft carriers.

Its lead ship was launched at Yokohama in 2013 with stated key missions including anti-submarine warfare and border-area surveillance as well as the swift deployment of troops and materials for disaster relief.

Two of the vessels – the Izumo and Kaga – have already been in service with two under construction and two planned.

Destroyers of this class can carry a crew of 970 and a maximum of 28 helicopters with armaments including the Raytheon-made Phalanx close-in weapons system against anti-ship missiles and helicopters.

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The Izumo was built with a design for an easy upgrade into an aircraft carrier. Photos: Handout

Japan will write the plan into its latest National Defense Program Guidelines at the end of the year, Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya announced at a press conference on Tuesday. The newly installed defense chief also said the retrofitted carriers would carry US-made F-35B stealth fighter jets capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings.

Japan will order 100 more F-35 fighter jets, including both the F-35A and the F-35B, from Lockheed Martin.

Under the war-renouncing Article 9 of its pacifist constitution, Japan cannot possess attack aircraft carriers, as it is only allowed to use force for self-defense.

Japanese military sources confirmed that the possibility of operating fixed-wing aircraft was incorporated into the design of the ships from the earliest stages of the Izumo program. The aircraft elevators and the deck paint were designed to handle aircraft like the F-35B, and it would be possible to add a ski-jump to the flight deck for the fighters’ operations.