The news of China’s first aircraft carrier being launched is definitely relevant in terms of China’s long-term naval policy. But the Varyag-turned-Liaoning won’t be decisively tilting the balance of China’s prospects in a naval clash with Japan any time soon.
Make no mistake: it was politics rather than military strategy that saw the Liaoning get an early launch this week. Given the fact that the carrier isn’t yet fully operational and China still lacks a credible air platform to launch from it, the Liaoning doesn’t have much to add to the military equation at present. And even as a symbolic gesture, the intended audience isn’t Japan so much as the Chinese public ahead of a critical leadership transition period this autumn.
This begs the question of where the naval balance of power currently stands between Japan and China, two countries that, spurred on by their respective domestic political circumstances, seem increasingly likely to spar at sea. In the interest of brevity, the best answer is: advantage China, but the possibility of a Japanese victory shouldn’t be written off. However, moving into the future, as more and more advanced Chinese destroyers are churned out and deployed by the PLA Navy, the possibility of a Japanese victory will continue to shrink into eventual nonexistence.
James Holmes wrote an excellent piece for Foreign Policy in which he succinctly summed up the three “ex-factors” of a possible Sino-Japanese clash at sea: the historically poor performance of military technology in a closed society like China vis-à-vis an open one like Japan; the advantage that Japan enjoys in human capital thanks to its highly professionalized military; and the role that geography plays in a potential naval clash between the two Asian powers, primarily insofar that their relative proximity increases the viability of land-based platforms.
Roughly speaking, here’s how the two of them match up. The PLA Navy has 73 major warships, 84 missile-firing patrol craft, and 63 submarines, all divided into three navies that patrol along the coast of China. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) is concentrated into one navy, and it has 48 major warships, and 16 diesel-electric submarines. Among the Japanese surface fleet, there are two helicopter carriers and four AEGIS-capable destroyers.
The above shows that China has a clear advantage in terms of numbers. But, most of the platforms in question have never been tested in a combat setting. What’s more, it’s historically difficult to predict what will happen once hostilities between two countries break out. For example, how would each country respond to an initial setback in which they lost a few ships? Interestingly enough, the prospect of a small-scale defeat right out of the gates may be more daunting for China, because while recent events suggest that Chinese nationalism would likely support a conflict, the CCP would be anteing its reputation as a ‘national savior’ on the performance of the PLA Navy. There’s also no way of knowing at what point and how earnestly the US Navy would choose to get involved in this kind of a limited border dispute.
The importance of land-based platforms in a hypothetical Sino-Japanese naval clash puts another interesting spin on things. Japan is in possession of the highly capable ‘Type 88’ Anti-ship Cruise Missile (ASCM) and China has deployed the much-feared Sizzler ASCM, which theoretically could take out a US aircraft carrier. Depending on where these platforms are deployed, they could have a decisive impact on any clash at sea. China’s regular stock of ballistic missiles could also be leveraged against land-based targets in Japan, depending on the extent of the hostilities that break out. Judging by the complexion of the US-Japanese defense dialogue of late (X-Band radar installations and equipping Japan with more AEGIS-capable ships), it seems that the missile question is weighing heavily on East Asian defense planners. But it’s important to note that they haven’t come up with an answer yet. In other words, if hostilities were to break out tomorrow, China would be able to leverage its missiles for a considerable advantage.
And on the topic of the untested nature of these platforms, especially ASCMs, one gets the sense that if hostilities were to break out, China would quite likely seize on the opportunity to test its Sizzler missile and see if it really is the platform that could deprive a US Carrier Group access from the waters surrounding Taiwan.
In sum, it is quite likely that the PLA Navy would emerge victorious in a clash against the JMSDF in which the US Navy did not enter as an active participant. That said, the MSDF has areas of technological and training excellence that could help it come out on top. Like any conflict, a Sino-Japanese naval war would be extremely destabilizing and the extent of the hostilities would be impossible to predict. Given the potentially escalating factors of the US-Japan alliance and the unresolved question of Taiwan, it could end up being truly disastrous for all parties involved.