James Holmes

In the Shadow of China’s Rise

Japan and India are strong naval powers. Both face China’s growing might from different perspectives.

On Thursday the Naval Diplomat will have the privilege of moderating a roundtable featuring Vice Admiral Yoji Koda, a former commander-in-chief of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force fleet, and Admiral Sureesh Mehta, a former chief of naval staff of the Indian Navy. That's distinguished company for your humble scribe to keep. The panel will take place at this year's China Maritime Studies Institute conference, which is probing "China's Evolving Surface Fleet." That should make for a bracing mix of perspectives on the PLA Navy.

Think about the asymmetries between the two seafaring Asian states. Japan faces China across the congested Yellow Sea, an operating ground for both the JMSDF and PLA Navy fleets. The island state also lies well within striking range of shore-based Chinese sea power, manifest in tactical aircraft, antiship cruise missiles, and antiship ballistic missiles. The PLA Navy surface fleet is a beneficiary of extended-range fire support from Fortress China — and all mariners know a ship's a fool to fight a fort. The JMSDF, then, executes its daily routine under the shadow of an unseen but imposing arsenal.

Geographic distance affords India time — sort of. India is remote from China by sea. Ships must undertake tortuous voyages through the Malacca, Sunda, or Lombok straits to reach the Indian Ocean from East Asia (or vice versa), or else detour around the South China Sea rim, or else steam way, way around southern Australia. China also has abundant business to tend to in the China seas, limiting the forces it can spare for South Asia. India thus enjoys some leisure to build up its seagoing capacity, whereas Japan already finds itself in the thick of strategic competition with China. On the other hand, the two continental powers share a contested land frontier. They can apply pressure on one another without even putting ships to sea — much as Chinese troops have done along the "line of actual control" in recent days. Bilateral encounters, then, can unfold along direct or indirect axes, on land or at sea.

Nor do the differences stop at geography. Japan is an established naval power of decades' standing. The JMSDF boasts a world-class fleet featuring such platforms as light aircraft carriers, Aegis-equipped destroyers, and diesel-electric submarines. India is a sea power on the rise, albeit one with proven capabilities such as naval aviation. Whatever New Delhi's travails with the Admiral Gorshkov/Vikramaditya carrier project and indigenous flattop construction, naval aviation has a long pedigree in the Indian Navy. Indeed, seamanship and tactical excellence appear to be virtues common to Japanese and India seafarers. For now the human factor appears to work in their favor vis-à-vis the PLA Navy. Whether that will remain true as China's navy matures remains to be seen.

And then there's the American factor.  Japan and the United States are the closest of allies, bound together by a security pact that dates from 1951. (One hopes it doesn't retire at 65.) Japan is also home to the U.S. Seventh Fleet, meaning that the PLA Navy must reckon with a combined fleet, not the JMSDF alone. India and the United States have concluded no formal alliance. Nor are they likely to, in light of India's nonaligned tradition, suspicions of the United States that linger from the Cold War, and proprietary attitudes toward the Indian Ocean region. In all likelihood New Delhi would make common cause with Washington if under extreme duress. Still, there's no automatic commitment akin to the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Debating whether to join forces would introduce unknowns during times of crisis, a hothouse environment where uncertainty is high, options narrow, and the pressure to act intensifies.

I could doubtless push this comparison much further but will stop here (for now). America should wish Japan and India well in their seaborne ventures. More than that, it should keep working with them to hone the skills and interoperability crucial to any combined fighting force. That keeps options open for policymakers.