As the Asia-Pacific Region is increasingly becoming a centre of world politics and economics, gravitational pull inside the Asia-Pacific region is moving to Northeast Asia, where the interests of great powers – China, Japan, the USA, and Russia – meet and clash.
The situation at sea is similar. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force is a full-fledged modern and numerous fleet. In the Senkaku area, Japan would be able to deploy at least four Aegis destroyers from its bases in Yokosuka, Sasebo and Kure. Their distinctive features include ability to control naval forces and aviation, high target detection rate and ability to operate all the weapons onboard.
Japan would also be able to use a dozen destroyers of more modest combat capabilities to address the task of anti-submarine defence and local air defence.
For the purposes of combat tasks against China, primarily to monitor its nuclear submarines, Japan could allocate up to eight modern diesel submarines. A new Hyuga-class helicopter destroyer could be used to perform anti-submarine tasks as part of a squadron.
Japan also has amphibious warships. However, a landing operation on Senkaku could involve only small groups of servicemen without heavy weaponry, landing from helicopters or hovercraft.
Moreover, an amphibious operation could be successful only if there is supremacy both at sea and in the air, which neither side in the current circumstances is capable of.
It should also be noted that if Japan sets up an outpost on Okinawa, it will have to transport a large amount of hardware, ammunition and materiel by sea. Even when following “the Pacific route”, with the East China Sea featuring only in the final leg of the journey, these deliveries will become considerably more vulnerable. So Japan will have to make sure its convoys have powerful anti-submarine defence.
It is worth noting that Japanese ships have no capability to hit coastal installations on Chinese territory since the country is banned from having the relevant class of missile systems.
The Navy of the People’s Liberation Army of China has an impressive combat potential. Its East China Sea Fleet (with its main bases in Ningbo and Shanghai) is deployed directly in the conflict zone. Real combat force is manifest in four Russian-built destroyers equipped with powerful anti-ship weapons. The East China Sea Fleet also has seven modern diesel submarines (including four Russian ones) that are capable of performing the full spectrum of combat tasks, including tracking the enemy on the surface and underwater, destroying the enemy with anti-ship missiles and torpedoes, and planting mines. Still, the East China Sea Fleet lacks effective anti-submarine forces. One should not forget China’s missile boats (whose exact number in the area is not known, but is definitely not below 20), which would not allow Japanese surface ships to approach the coast.
One should expect that in the event of a conflict over Senkaku, part of the South China Sea Fleet will also join in the action, which would completely undermine Japan’s seeming superiority at sea. Its most advanced vessels are equipped with the Chinese equivalent of the Aegis multipurpose system and are capable of destroying sea and air enemy targets outside the range of Japanese weapons.
Between the two of them, the two fleets have 20 amphibious warships of various types, however the prospect of a large-scale landing operation on Senkaku is unlikely for the reasons stated above.
As for its North Sea Fleet ships, China may well decide to keep them in store. The only exception is multipurpose nuclear submarines.
There is no confirmed data as to how many new nuclear submarines the Chinese Navy has (presumably, three) and how combat ready the four obsolete submarines are.
Still, one could expect that at least two submarines will be involved in an effort to disrupt supplies to Okinawa.
China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning is undergoing tests and cannot yet be considered as having entered combat duty.
Thus, in a large-scale Japanese-Chinese conflict near Senkaku, unless a third party is involved, the victory would most likely go to China, albeit at the cost of huge losses.
This conclusion could be made primarily on the basis of China’s advantage in numbers both at sea and in the air, as well as its considerable reserves, with its weapons and combat systems having comparable or better performance characteristics. All this outweighs the excellent organization and management abilities the Japanese have.