There really isn’t a better way to respond to Toshi Yoshihara’s troubling new study of Chinese views of Japanese seapower and the shifting balance of power between Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force and China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). This transition has profound implications not only for the defense of Japan but regional stability as well, given the vital role that Japanese maritime superiority has played in assuring U.S. military dominance in the Asia Pacific.
“Dragon against the Sun: Chinese Views of Japanese Seapower” is the latest in Yoshihara’s long line of work on maritime security in Asia. A senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis (CSBA, which published the study last month), he taught strategy for over a decade at the Naval War College and has written some of the definitive works on Chinese naval policy. In other words, his conclusions are not to be taken lightly.
His analysis draws deeply on history and begins with the especially contentious relationship that Japan and China have had for over a century. A “historical consciousness about power” — one in which wealth and power provide a “mutually reinforcing formula for national triumph and greatness” — is the foundation of thinking about national security in both countries. Both see prosperity as the critical enabler of military strength, which is in turn the means to assert national greatness. In a region in which Tokyo and Beijing view the other as its primary rival, the result is a zero-sum competition that is extremely sensitive to long-held grievances.
Given that worldview, the “dramatic shift” in the balance of naval power in Asia that Yoshihara observes isn’t just worrying but is actually dangerous. A “massive” Chinese naval buildup that began in the 1990s allowed the PLAN to overtake the MSDF “in critical measures of power, including fleet size, aggregate tonnage, and firepower.”
The total tonnage of the Chinese surface combatant fleet doubled in the 29 years after 1990, even as the number of PLAN ships shrank by more than 60 percent. That means the average tonnage of a Chinese surface combatant increased nearly seven times in that period, making those vessels more capable and more lethal.
In 2020, the PLAN had two-and-a-half times more principal surface combatants than the MSDF, and 75 percent more of the vertical launch systems (VLS) that are used for missiles, and that gap is expected to widen. The disparity in firepower in combination with the longer range of Chinese missiles allows major Chinese combatants to attack the Japanese fleet from beyond the range of weapons from MSDF warships.
The trends point to “an irreparable erosion in competitiveness” for the MSDF and Japan will likely be relegated to second place permanently within this decade if China’s naval construction program maintains its current pace. Economic strains imposed on the Chinese economy by the COVID-19 outbreak may slow, but not reverse, that process. But Japan too is subject to the same contagion.
Yoshihara’s conclusions are not unique. A Congressional Research Service analysis also released last month noted a similar deterioration in the U.S.-China balance of naval power and reasoned “that if current U.S. and Chinese naval capability trend lines do not change, China might eventually draw even with or surpass the United States in overall naval capability.”
James Kraska, another Naval War College expert, offered an even darker assessment earlier this year, stating that “the U.S. has lost advantage throughout the spectrum of operations. … China has escalation dominance, because it has the power to deter any U.S. turn towards escalation. The U.S. is outmatched in all of the scenarios.” If China is pulling level with or besting the U.S., then it must be doing even better against Japan.
A comparison of naval modernization programs is troubling, but it is only half the story. What distinguishes Yoshihara’s work — and really triggers alarm bells — is the insight he gleans from Chinese strategists’ assessment of this shift. He concludes that the changing balance of power “has had a tangible impact on Chinese perceptions of Japan and of China’s relative competitiveness.” Bluntly put, China is no longer intimidated by the MSDF. In a sentence that should jolt readers upright, “China is increasingly convinced that it possesses the means and skills at sea to bend Japan to its will.”
Yoshihara fears that China’s confidence “will increase the likelihood that Beijing would act on its threat of violence.” He anticipates that China will adopt a more offensive approach in a local maritime conflict with Japan, taking greater risks during peacetime and be more ready to accept the use of force at sea as a viable option. He flags a Chinese claim that new MSDF aircraft carriers would be a “superb target” for China’s firepower as proof of a new appetite for risk.
Those beliefs are reinforced by mirror imaging. Yoshihara writes that Chinese analysts have concluded that “a combination of competitive impulses, insecurity, ill will, and deeply ingrained cultural traits” obliges Tokyo to view China’s new power as “a grave threat.” According to Chinese thinking, Japan will do whatever it can to halt China’s ascendance. This suggests that a naval confrontation between the two countries is “virtually fated,” a mindset that validates any move that China makes as both defensive and essential.
All is not lost, however. Yoshihara notes that Chinese strategists assume that the U.S. would not intervene in a Japan-China crisis, wishful thinking that ignores repeated declarations by senior U.S. officials, including presidents, that they would honor Article 5 of the Mutual Defense Treaty. Chinese writing could be the product of projection, group think, political imperatives, or some other analytical fallacy, but a belief that the U.S. would sit out this fight risks dangerous miscalculation. Being wrong isn’t the problem, though. As in the North Korean case, mistaken assumptions can be as destabilizing as trend lines.
Japan could recognize the importance of shift, arrest the trends and change naval trajectories. That seems increasingly unlikely in the country’s demographic circumstances and the budget pressures they create — especially in the wake of the extraordinary measures to cushion the economic blows of the COVID-19 crisis.
The most realistic response is through the lens of the Japan-U.S. alliance. While there is a belief here (and in some cases abroad) that the U.S. provides for Japan’s defense, the two countries increasingly integrate to defend and deter, both to effectuate the defense of Japan and throughout the Indo-Pacific.
The U.S. has relied on Japan to maintain its regional pre-eminence. As Yoshihara writes, “Japanese forces enabled the United States to project power across the Western Pacific and beyond, and they continue to do so.” The MSDF “complemented U.S. naval strengths, including undersea warfare, while making up for American capability gaps in such areas as minesweeping.”
The two allies must adjust to the shifting balance of power, evolving responsibilities, posture, doctrines and operations to accommodate new naval realities. Planning must account for the emerging local imbalance. Most important, Tokyo and Washington must make the case for joint action more powerfully even as these trends continue.
A realistic assessment of the naval balance of power and a renewed demonstration of their commitment to the alliance would be a powerful signal of intent, one that would help cut through the fog that clouds Chinese thinking and encourages recklessness and potentially destabilizing action.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”