Do not forget Japan: the rise of China and the maritime balance of power in the Asia-Pacific

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As the economic rise of China continues, so too does the protracted stagnation of Japan[i]. This has led some to underestimate the latter’s regional importance as well as its military capabilities. This article will specifically focus on the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) and argue that it remains the second most powerful naval force in the Asia-Pacific (after that of the United States) for the time being, as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) still faces a long period of modernization and expansion before it will possess the capability to project force and contribute to any potential revision of the regional balance of power. Although it possesses a similar level of operational experience as the JMSDF and is already larger in size, the PLAN still needs to close the gap in terms of training and widespread use of modern information and weapons technology. All of these are much more readily available to the JMSDF, which greatly benefits from Japan’s alliance with the United States.

The August 2011 sea trials of China’s first aircraft carrier (purportedly named the Shi Lang) were a reminder to China’s neighbours as well as to the United States that the PLAN was growing in strength and would eventually provide Beijing with a modern blue water naval force that could become a contender for regional naval supremacy. However, as the Asia-Pacific’s attention remains firmly focused on the relationship between China and the United States, it could be easy to forget that the PLAN is still years away from being able to potentially challenge its other regional counterpart, the JMSDF. Although not the only ones of relevance, the following four points deserve special mention.

First, the commissioning of Japan’s second helicopter destroyer, the Ise, in March 2011 was of significant importance. The Ise and its sister ship, the Hyūga, now form the backbone of the JMSDF and ensure some power projection capability if needed in the future. More importantly, while not the first generation of JMSDF helicopter destroyers, they are the first to resemble flat-top aircraft carriers in many respects. Should Japan eventually equip them with fighter jets, it would thus already possess much of the needed skills, training and inter-service coordination. In contrast, China’s first carrier may not be fully operational before the end of 2012 and Beijing might not complete an indigenous carrier before 2015[ii]. The latter obviously represents a significantly greater effort than conversion, and difficulties might arise during construction, pushing the date back further. On the other hand, both the Ise and the Hyūga are indigenous Japanese designs[iii].

Second, the PLAN still lags behind the JMSDF and the U.S. Navy in terms of training and – although less than in the past – in terms of technology. It also has little experience in and capability of operating far from its ports. It was only in January 2009 that it was first operationally deployed outside of the western Pacific region[iv] and according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Defense, it will only be able to sustain a small naval flotilla in low-intensity operations far from China by the end of the decade[v]. Additionally, while the PLAN does conduct joint naval exercises with other countries (increasingly so in recent years), the JMSDF and other regional navies benefit from decades of close cooperation with some of the world’s most modern naval forces[vi]. Japan also has access to advanced U.S. technology, such as the Aegis combat system, which has already been introduced onto six of its guided missile destroyers[vii]. However, the Chinese military has been making significant strides in recent years, with a strong focus on such areas as improved command and control and battlefield environment awareness[viii], as well as on constructing advanced nuclear-powered submarines and surface ships for the PLAN. Although still behind in widespread use of cutting-edge technologies, the gap is narrowing quickly and may not be considered a weakness for much longer – given China’s huge industrial base and rapid acquisition of foreign technology – as some of its weapon systems are already among the most advanced in the world[ix].

Third, the Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) is in many respects a force in its own right, with duties and capabilities that exceed those usually attributed to a country’s coast guard. After 9/11 Japan has significantly expanded the JCG’s role and its interoperability with the JMSDF. Although lacking advanced long-range weapon systems, the JCG’s capabilities are steadily increasing, with regular new acquisitions of ships, aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. One of the most recent additions was the Ishigaki, a 1,300 ton patrol boat, which was deployed to Okinawa in order to increase Japan’s surveillance capability in the disputed East China Sea[x]. The JCG’s potential as an auxiliary naval force is difficult to ignore. For example, in 2007 the total tonnage of the JCG alone reached 60 percent of that of China’s entire surface fleet[xi].

Fourth, although Chinese forces do already outnumber those of Japan (in terms of the number of ships and combat aircraft), the regional balance of power will not shift in China’s favour in the foreseeable future due to the presence of the U.S. and its security alliance with Japan. In fact, the U.S. Pacific Fleet (the largest of any U.S. fleet) alone consists of around 180 ships and 2,000 aircraft[xii], while Japan can deploy 47 major surface combatants (including helicopter destroyers and guided missile destroyers), 16 submarines and around 510 combat aircraft[xiii]. China can bring to bear 80 major surface combatants and 62 submarines. Its airforce could employ approximately 435 modern fighter jets out of a total of 2,040 combat aircraft[xiv]. These numbers are subject to constant change, as the arms race in the Asia-Pacific is set to intensify in the coming years[xv].

The aim of this article was to emphasise the fact that China continues to lag behind not only the United States in terms of maritime capabilities, but in most respects even behind its other regional competitor, Japan. That is not to say, however, that China will not eventually be in a position to demand a larger role in regional and global affairs, and that it will not have a formidable navy to reinforce its demands should it need to. It is undeniably a growing (in terms of sheer numbers it already surpasses the JMSDF) and increasingly capable and modern force that is being built up as a part of a sound, organized national defence policy[xvi]. But for the time being, Tokyo can still count on several strategic advantages: the widespread use of cutting-edge technology and modern surface combatants (including two helicopter carriers); the opportunity to train and exchange experience with other modern regional navies on a regular basis; its ‘second navy’ – a large and modern coast guard; and, most of all, its alliance with the United States. It is this alliance which will prove crucial when China’s emerging blue water navy catches up with, and eventually surpasses, Japan’s own.


[i] Japan’s gross domestic product shrank by 2.4% between 2010 and 2011. See BBC.co.uk (2012), Japan economy contracts amid strong yen and Thai floods, available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-17008164, accessed on 17 February 2012.

[ii] United States Department of Defense (2011) Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, available at http://www.defense.gov/pubs/pdfs/2011_cmpr_final.pdf, accessed on 17 February 2012.

[iii] Naval-technology.com (2011) Hyuga Class Destroyer, Japan, available at http://www.naval-technology.com/projects/hyuga-class/, accessed on 18 February 2012.

[iv] It began conducting counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden in January 2009. See Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] For example, the JMSDF first participated in the large-scale RIMPAC naval exercise in 1980 alongside the navies of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and others. See Ministry of Defense (2011) Defense of Japan (Annual White Paper) – Defense Chronology, available at http://www.mod.go.jp/e/publ/w_paper/pdf/2011/44Defense_Chronology.pdf, accessed on 17 February 2012.

[vii] Ministry of Defense (2011) Defense of Japan (Annual White Paper) – The New Mid-Term Defense Program, available at http://www.mod.go.jp/e/publ/w_paper/pdf/2011/24Part2_Chapter3_Sec1.pdf, accessed on 18 February 2012.

[viii] Information Office of the State Council (2011) China’s National Defense in 2010 – Modernization of the People’s Liberation Army, available at http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/2011-03/31/c_13806851_7.htm, accessed on 18 February 2012.

[ix] Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.

[x] Koh, Y. (2011) Coast Guard Beefs Up Senkaku Patrol Fleet, available at http://blogs.wsj.com/japanrealtime/2011/10/05/coast-guard-beefs-up-senkaku-patrol-fleet/, accessed on 4 March 2012, accessed on 4 March 2012.

[xi] Samuels, R. J. (2007/08) ‘‘New Fighting Power!’ Japan’s Growing Maritime Capabilities and East Asian Security’, International Security 32 (3): 84–112.

[xii] United States Pacific Fleet (2012) Facts, available at http://www.cpf.navy.mil/about/facts/, accessed on 18 February 2012.

[xiii] Defense of Japan (Annual White Paper) – The New Mid-Term Defense Program.

[xiv] Ministry of Defense (2011) Defense of Japan (Annual White Paper) – China, available at http://www.mod.go.jp/e/publ/w_paper/pdf/2011/24Part2_Chapter3_Sec1.pdf, accessed on 18 February 2012.

[xv] For example, see Kaplan, R. (2011) The US Navy fostered globalisation: we still need it, available at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f9d59564-19b7-11e1-ba5d-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1nfh5Dfxe, accessed on 5 March 2012.

[xvi] Chinese annual defense spending will likely double by the year 2015 and reach $238 billion, considerably exceeding Japan’s $64 billion. See Miks, J. (2012) China’s Beefed-Up Defense, available at http://the-diplomat.com/the-editor/2012/02/18/chinas-beefed-up-defense/, accessed on 19 February 2012.

About Author

Miha Hribernik

Miha Hribernik is contributor at the International Security Observer (ISO). Miha is an associate of the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS) in Brussels, and the institute’s former research coordinator. His other duties include contributing analysis for the geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat and working as a freelance writer. To date, his contributions have been published by the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs and Atlantic Voices, and will soon begin appearing in Slovenia’s largest daily newspaper, Delo. His research and analysis primarily cover the foreign and security policy of Japan, as well as maritime security with an emphasis on counter-piracy information sharing networks. Miha is a native Slovenian speaker and is fluent in English. He also speaks German, Serbian, Croatian, and is trying to learn Japanese.

2 Comments

  1. Dear Djan,

    thank you for your comment. The India-Japan relationship is indeed gaining in importance and I think it will be interesting to see how well it develops in the coming years, if (or rather, when) Japan decides to become more assertive in defending its interests. This certainly includes the sea lanes and their safety and this is a topic I wish to cover in one of my upcoming contributions for ISO.

    Glad you enjoyed the article!

  2. Djan Sauerborn on

    Very nice analytical read! Anothe rfundamental aspect of the strategic dynamics in the region lies within the fastest-growing bilateral relationship in Asia today, namely between India and Japan. In light of China’s “String of Pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean, taking a look at Japan-India ties seems worthwhile.

    Japan and India – as energy-poor countries heavily dependent on oil imports from the Persian Gulf region – are seriously concerned by mercantilist efforts to assert control over energy supplies and transport routes.The balance of power in Asia will be determined by events principally in two regions: East Asia and the Indian Ocean. Japan and India thus have an important role to play to advance peace and stability and help safeguard vital sea lanes in the wider Indo-Pacific region, which is marked by the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

    http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-12-29/news/30568722_1_india-japan-japan-and-india-comprehensive-economic-partnership-agreement

    Cheers!

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