How China has Overtaken Japan in Naval Power and Why It Matters

The following article is adapted from a new report by Dr. Toshi Yoshihara at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), Dragon Against the Sun: Chinese Views of Japanese Seapower.

By Toshi Yoshihara

A major reversal of fortunes at sea has gone largely unnoticed. Over the past decade, the Chinese Navy sped past the Japanese maritime service across key measures of material prowess. The trendlines suggest that China will soon permanently displace Japan as the leading regional naval power in Asia. This historic power transition will have repercussions across the Indo-Pacific in the years to come. It behooves policymakers to pay attention to this overlooked but consequential shift in the naval balance between two great seafaring nations.

The Power Transition at Sea

The growing power gap between the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) is stark and will widen at an accelerated pace. China already boasts the largest navy in the world with more than 300 ships and submarines. By comparison, the JMSDF’s naval strength in 2019 included four light helicopter carriers, two cruisers, 34 destroyers, 11 frigates, three amphibious assault ships, six fast-attack missile boats, and 21 submarines. By 2030, the PLAN could have more than 450 ships and close to 110 submarines while the JMSDF will likely not be much larger than it is today.1

In aggregate tonnage for principal surface combatants, a rough measure of latent capacity and capability, China surpassed Japan in 2013. By 2020, the PLAN exceeded the JMSDF in total tonnage by about 40 percent. By average tonnage per combatant, a more precise measure of capacity and capability, the Japanese fleet continues to maintain a comfortable lead of about 45 percent over its Chinese counterpart. Japan’s position, however, may not hold for long as China puts to sea more carriers, cruisers, and destroyers.

In terms of firepower, the vertical launch system (VLS)—a grouping of silos that holds and fires shipborne missiles—furnishes a useful proxy for a fleet’s lethality. In this category of naval power, China’s catchup story is stunning. The JMSDF introduced VLS a decade earlier than the PLAN in the early 1990s. Yet, the Chinese quickly caught up and zoomed past the Japanese in 2017. By 2020, the PLAN had 75 percent more VLS cells than the JMSDF.

Number of VLS cells on JMSDF and PLAN destroyers and in the total surface fleets (CSBA) 

More troubling still, China’s large arsenal of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) outranges that of the JMSDF by considerable distances. In a hypothetical fleet-on-fleet engagement, the PLAN could launch large salvoes of ASCMs that could reach its opponent’s warships well before the Japanese side could get within range to hit back, conferring a significant first-strike advantage to China. It remains to be seen whether Japan will introduce enough long-range ship-killing missiles, including the repurposed Standard Missile 6 air-defense interceptors, to close the range gap.

China’s air force and rocket force further tip the scales in its favor. Chinese airpower and missiles ashore would almost certainly join the fray in any conceivable conflict. The JMSDF’s surface fleet would have to fend off volleys of air-launched ASCMs and land-based anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles as well as missiles fired from ships and submarines. Japan’s maritime service thus inhabits a vexing and inhospitable operational environment.

Beyond Bean Counting

Fleet size, tonnage, and firepower do not provide a full measure of a navy’s combat power. Operational proficiency, tactical elan, regular and extended deployments in blue-water environments, and real combat experience are equally critical, if not more so, when evaluating a navy’s prospects for fighting and winning a war at sea. Even in this qualitative area, however, it is no longer axiomatic that Japan holds a decisive advantage over China.

PLA Navy aircraft carrier Shandong berthed at a naval port in Sanya ( by Feng Kaixuan)

Over the past decade, the Chinese Navy has proven itself a capable expeditionary service. The PLAN’s various open ocean activities suggest that it has accumulated substantial at-sea experience. Notably, the Chinese Navy has sustained a continuous rotation of anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean since 2009, an impressive feat by any measure. The PLAN has also dispatched flotillas for long-distance transits throughout the Western Pacific and beyond.

Peacetime exercises and constabulary operations may not be reliable indicators of how the Chinese Navy will perform in combat. The well-worn remark that China has not fought a war since 1979 remains valid. Of course, neither has Japan since 1945. The reality is that no one knows for certain how each side will fare until the shooting starts.

It remains unclear how the economic contraction following the COVID-19 crisis will impact China’s investment in its navy. What is certain, however, is that Japan will not escape the economic fallout from the global pandemic and the attending fiscal pressures on defense spending. The momentum behind the Chinese naval buildup, moreover, will likely not slow down enough to reverse the tilting naval balance in Beijing’s favor.

Why the Naval Imbalance Matters

Japan’s eroding naval position not only reduces its ability to defend the liberal international order, but it also weakens the deterrent posture of the U.S.-Japan alliance and, in the process, undercuts American strategy in Asia. Consider the centrality of Japanese seapower to the regional security architecture.

Japanese Navy destroyer Maya (DDG-179) (Japanese Ministry of Defense photo)

In peacetime, Japan’s maritime service helps deter aggression and keep the seas open to all, an essential condition for free trade and global prosperity. Should deterrence fail, the JMSDF would sweep clear the major maritime approaches to the theater of operations along the Asian littorals and conduct operations to obtain and exercise sea control alongside the U.S. Navy. Moreover, the sea service complements U.S. naval strengths, including undersea warfare, while making up for American capability gaps in such areas as minesweeping.

A revisionist China must carefully consider Japan’s still-formidable maritime service when calculating its options vis-à-vis the United States. Beijing would likely think twice about coercion or aggression if it believed that the alliance possessed overwhelming military superiority. Conversely, if Beijing concluded that Tokyo was becoming a crack in the armor, then it might be tempted to gamble.

The bottom line is that it is the combined power of the U.S. Navy’s forward-deployed naval forces and the JMSDF that helps to keep the peace in Asia. It is thus imperative that U.S. policymakers perceive the relative decline of Japanese seapower as a proxy for the corrosion of American power in the Indo-Pacific.

If past is prologue, China’s rapid accumulation of naval power—and Japan’s inability to keep up—portends unwelcome great power relations. The most striking historical parallel is Britain’s naval decline during the Cold War. In the late 1970s, the Soviets had far outstripped the British across major measures of naval power just as the PLAN is eclipsing the JMSDF today. By the early 1980s, it became increasingly doubtful whether Britain could defend its own backyard against Soviet designs.  

Britain’s relative decline posed global dilemmas for the United States. If the U.S. Navy were tied down in an emergency elsewhere, there was concern that the Soviets might seize the occasion to test European resolve in the North Atlantic. It was feared then that the Royal Navy’s impotence in the face of a Soviet naval challenge would severely undermine stability, deterrence, and allied cohesion while opening the way for Moscow to advance its aims in Europe.

It does not stretch the imagination to foresee a similar risk today. American global commitments, particularly in Europe and the Middle East, could draw Washington’s attention to faraway theaters. In such circumstances, the United States would likely expect Japan to do much more to deter, if not oppose, Chinese opportunism. The extent to which the JMSDF upholds its end of the bargain would be a major test for the alliance.

Allied Implications

To be sure, any assessment of the Indo-Pacific strategic balance would be incomplete without accounting for the U.S. military, including its forward-deployed assets and its surge forces around the world. The combined naval power of the United States and Japan still outweighs that of China. But that margin of superiority is diminishing as China continues its ascent at sea, pulling even farther ahead of Japan.   

Consequently, the security partnership’s capacity to deter aggression is likely to come under more strain. Equally worrisome, the PLAN and its sister services are already able to project power across and well beyond the first island chain, deliver ample firepower over long distances, and impose heavy costs on U.S. and Japanese forces. These developments are likely to challenge, if not upend, longstanding allied assumptions about escalation dominance and warfighting.

Allied policymakers must recognize that a historic power shift has already taken place in maritime Asia. For too long, defense planners and the broader strategic community have focused exclusively on the bilateral Sino-U.S. naval rivalry while slighting the local balance between China and Japan. In the past, when allied superiority and the JMSDF’s qualitative advances appeared insuperable, it was safe to take Japan’s role for granted.

Yet, today, as the balance tilts increasingly in China’s favor, Japan’s relative decline could emerge as a weak link in the alliance’s deterrent posture. Understanding the extent to which Japan has fallen behind, to include how the Chinese perceive the local imbalance, should assume a far more prominent place in allied decision-making. Such a comprehensive estimate must be integral to the allied calculus about strategy, posture, operations, and competitiveness.

Toshi Yoshihara is senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). His latest book, co-authored with James R. Holmes, is the second edition of Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (Naval Institute Press, 2019).  


1. For the 2030 estimate for the PLAN, see Captain James E. Fanell (ret.), “China’s global Navy eyeing sea control by 2030, superiority by 2049,” Sunday Guardian, June 13, 2020, available from

Featured Image: The picture shows aircraft carrier Shandong berths at a naval port in Sanya. China’s first domestically-made aircraft carrier Shandong (Hull 17) was officially commissioned to the PLA Navy at a military port in Sanya, South China’s Hainan Province, on the afternoon of December 17, 2019. ( by Feng Kaixuan)

Sea Control 185 – Stable Seas: Bay of Bengal with Jay Benson and Abhijit Singh

By Jared Samuelson

Stable Seas’ Jay Benson and the Observer Research Foundation’s Abhijit Singh come aboard Sea Control to discuss Stable Seas’ report on the Bay of Bengal, human and physical geography around the Bay, national security concerns, the difficulties of synchronizing the “blue economy,” and challenges unique to the Bay’s many riverine ports and fisheries.

Download Sea Control 185 – Stable Seas: Bay of Bengal with Jay Benson and Abhijit Singh



Jared Samuelson is the Senior Producer of the Sea Control podcast. Contact him at

Blue Books for the Green Side: A Reading List on Naval Integration 

By Walker D. Mills and Joseph E. Hanacek

“Naval Integration” has quickly become a focus within the U.S. Marine Corps and Navy. It was a critical section in the 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps’ Planning Guidance, where the Commandant elaborated: “I intend to seek greater integration between the Navy and Marine Corps….Navy and Marine Corps officers developed a tendency to view their operational responsibilities as separate and distinct, rather than intertwined…. there is a need to reestablish a more integrated approach to operations in the maritime domain.” Emerging great power competition in the Pacific is again forcing the Marine Corps and the Navy to work more closely and solve complicated new problems. New Marine concepts like Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations are reintroducing naval operations to the center of Marine thinking and warfighting. Despite this recent shift, there is still a glaring lack of naval-oriented education in the Marines.

Over the last few decades, Marines have increasingly left their naval roots behind and conducted campaigns in the rugged mountains of land-locked Afghanistan and the arid deserts of Iraq. The current generation of Marines is less likely to have served on ship than to have served on the ground in the Middle East. Recent commentary has questioned the true significance of their relationship to the Navy, such as by asking “Are we naval in character or purpose?” A flood of responses revealed, if not a clear answer, at least a resounding acknowledgement that the Marine Corps’ relationship with the Navy is a key attribute, if not the defining attribute of the force. Yet naval campaigns, despite being a raison d’etre for the Marine Corps, do not feature in junior officer education and may not be encountered at all by officers until many years later into their careers. Instead, land operations consist of the grand majority of the material taught. Even in classes on amphibious case studies like the Falklands, Marine instructors often largely if not totally ignore the larger maritime campaign and start with the ship-to-shore movement.

The atrophy of combined Navy and Marine Corps thinking is far from being solely a Marine Corps issue. For years the Navy’s approach to maritime warfare has been built around specialization instead of integration. The aforementioned Marines learning about the Falklands campaign didn’t focus on the war at sea because that was the fleet’s specialty, not theirs. The same can be true of the fight on the ground from the perspective of the Navy. While this type of unilateral approach to problem solving has been sufficient in the era of unchallenged U.S. maritime supremacy, it can no longer be accepted given the growing scope and complexity of potential military challenges.

One of the most valuable attributes of a well-integrated team is its resilience. While some efficiency may be lost in cross-training, traits such as adaptability, effectiveness, and survivability can be greatly enhanced. Marines need to understand amphibious and sea control operations in the context of larger naval campaigns, especially because the modern character of those campaigns is evolving into a far more threatening challenge. Marines need to have a basic literacy of naval strategy, operations, and tactics as it pertains to their roles in supporting those campaigns. This effort not only enhances the fleet when campaigns are functioning well, but it provides the fleet with an insurance policy when combat friction begins to manifest.

Naval integration is not a passing fad, nor a flavor of the day. It is supposed to be the core attribute of the Marine Corps. The meat of the Title 10 roles and responsibilities of the Marine Corps are: “The Marine Corps shall be organized, trained, and equipped to provide fleet marine forces… for service with the fleet… as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign.” The Marine Corps is a force designed to operate in support of and in conjunction with the U.S. Navy.

In this vein, we have assembled a short reading list focused along the theme of naval integration. These readings can serve as a primer in naval operations for Marines and other landlubbers, or supplement and advance a foundation of naval knowledge for any interested reader. The books generally fall into three categories – fundamentals, history, and current issues. We have also included our favorite periodicals that often run articles and debates oncontemporary tactics and proposals for future concepts.

These readings of interest include:

Naval Strategy and Operations in Narrow Seas by Milan Vego

Vego, a professor at the United States Naval War College, may be the world’s leading scholar of littoral warfare. In Naval Strategy and Operations in Narrow Seas, Vego melds his own experience serving in the Adriatic with the Yugoslavian Navy, naval history, and more current naval operations. His book is a comprehensive examination of littoral warfare for the student or practitioner and covers everything from the space and geometries of the littoral to sea denial and relevant weapons systems. It is a perfect book to use both as an introduction and a deeper dive into littoral warfare. However, originally published in 1999, Vego’s book has not been updated to reflect geopolitical and technological changes.

Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, Third Ed. by Captain Wayne P. Hughes (ret.) and Rear Admiral Robert P. Girrier (ret.)

Hughes, a recently passed professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and former U.S. Navy officer, was a giant in the study of naval tactics. The third edition of Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat is similar to Naval Strategy and Operations in Narrow Seas in that it breaks down and explains warfare in the littoral. The book also explains Hughes’ salvo model for missile combat, which is the standard for modeling missile combat at sea, and provides an excellent starting point from which Marines can begin to factor their shore-and air-based fires into the maritime fight. The book is an A-Z explanation of littoral warfare and also looks forward into continuing trends and the future of littoral warfare. The most recent edition, co-authored by Rear Admiral Robert P. Girrier, and with a forward written by then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, includes a chapter discussing current revolutions in military affairs and a fictional scenario depicting how a modern war in the littorals could feasibly unfold.

Navy Strategic Culture: Why the Navy Thinks Differently by Roger W. Barnett

Navy Strategic Culture is an important book because it dissects what makes the Navy different from the other services and critically, why that matters. Barnett is another former U.S. naval officer and instructor at the U.S. Naval War College. His book can either be a jumping-off point for a reader who wants to better understand the Navy and does not know where to start, or for a reader who has experienced the Navy firsthand and wants to understand why the Navy is unique. The book will provide the reader with both a better understanding and a better appreciation for the U.S. Navy and its contribution to U.S. strategy writ large.

Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898–1945 by Trent Hone

Whenever young naval officers ask for book recommendations from senior commanders, this book is almost guaranteed to be on the list. Learning War assesses the generations of work and force development that was done in the years leading up to the Second World War that transformed the U.S. Navy into an organization that can adapt to and excel against emerging great power threats. The book, a favorite of CNO Richardson’s, shows how even after several bruising defeats early in the war the U.S. Navy still needed time to adapt and evolve. In future conflicts, critical events could very well be decided on a far shorter timeframe, begging the question as to whether our current learning culture as a military service is going to be up to the challenge in a future war that might only last months as opposed to years. 

The Price of Admiralty: The Evolution of Naval Warfare by John Keegan

John Keegan is an award-winning British historian and former lecturer at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. The Price of Admiralty is his attempt to write about naval history, as Keegan is, in the words of a critical review by Wayne Hughes, a “landlubber.” He has researched and written extensively on ground combat, however he can still deliver in his explanations and descriptions of naval combat. The Price of Admiralty is as exhaustively researched as his other books and presents an accessible and valuable history of naval warfare from the perspectives of the combatants. Though British-centric, The Price of Admiralty can provide any reader with a better understanding of what naval combat is, how it feels, and how it has evolved over the centuries. 

Small Boats and Daring Men: Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare and the Early American Navy by Benjamin Armstrong

The core argument in Armstrong’s new book Small Boats and Daring Men is that irregular warfare at sea was critical to the success of the early American navy, and was quite common. Armstrong, a history professor at the United States Naval Academy, mixes well-known cases of irregular warfare, like those conducted against the Barbary Pirates, with lesser known but equally interesting cases like the U.S. naval expeditions to Sumatra. Small Boats and Daring Men is a fascinating study of 18th and 19th century maritime competition and conflict that may change the reader’s perspective on the age of sail and the history of the U.S. Navy. It also offers a historical basis for irregular littoral operations. 

Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer

The Marine Corps solemnly remembers the 1,592 Marines killed during the Guadalcanal campaign and the horrific fighting that ensued there. It is also quick to recall that the first month of the campaign was conducted largely without the support of naval forces, which were intended to support the troops on the ground. What is often forgotten is that during the operation U.S. and Japanese naval forces were relatively similar in strength, that the outcome of the battle at sea was far from certain, and a naval defeat would spell certain defeat on land. Hornfischer, with several other award-winning books about the U.S. Navy to his name, is well-versed in applying narrative history to naval storytelling. His work here provides ready and digestible insights into how naval- and land-based objectives became intertwined at the tactical and operational level of war and, in doing so, he gives the reader a critical retelling of this pivotal littoral battle so familiar to Marines, from the naval perspective.

There are several other outstanding histories of the Solomons Campaign and Guadalcanal that are worthy mentions, including Ian W. Toll’s Pacific Crucible, Joseph Wheelan’s Midnight in the Pacific, and Richard B. Frank’s Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account

One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander by Patrick Robinson and Sandy Woodward

The Falklands War is the best case of a “modern” amphibious battle. Fought over islands in the South Atlantic between the United Kingdom and Argentina, the Falklands campaign is frequently referred to as a case study on how modern naval combat works. Much of the weaponry and tactics used in the Falklands are still standard today, and the war saw joint forces on both sides fighting maritime campaigns, including amphibious operations. The reader can learn many lessons from Woodward – the British task force commander. His memoir is frank and he candidly discusses his successes and mistakes. A careful reader would also do well to note the changes in naval warfare and the operating environment over the last four decades so as to not get caught in the trap of fighting the last war.

There are several other worthwhile studies of the Falklands War including The Official History of the Falklands Campaign by Sir Lawrence Freedman, a professor at King’s College in London, and Battle for the Falklands by journalists Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins. 

Red Star Over The Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy, Second Ed. by Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes

In Red Star Over The Pacific, Holmes and Yoshihara provide a much-needed update to their original 2013 edition. Yoshihara and Holmes are China and maritime strategy experts – Holmes is currently the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, and Yoshihara formerly held the John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Naval War College and is now a senior fellow at CSBA. Their book outlines the massive growth in capability and size of China’s naval forces in a way that is straightforward to understand, and they also cover the implications of Chinese naval force development and the way it impacts and compares to the U.S. Navy. Fascinating and current, the book is also a warning to the reader to take competition and potential conflict in the Pacific seriously, as the authors make clear just how important naval power has become to Chinese grand strategy.

The War for Muddy Waters: Pirates, Terrorists, Traffickers and Maritime Security by Joshua Tallis

Tallis’s new book is easily among the most current on this list. What Tallis argues in The War for Muddy Waters is that maritime security is as important and will continue to be as important as traditional naval warfare. Tallis dives into security issues in the littoral with pirates, smugglers, and terrorists and presents a view of maritime security challenges that is often overlooked but increasingly important as demographics shift toward ever more littoralization. The War for Muddy Waters will expose the reader to the broader but equally relevant world of maritime security beyond limited naval issues.

Front Burner: Al Qaeda’s Attack on USS Cole by Kirk Lippold is an excellent anti-terrorism and force protection case study that expands on the irregular threat to warships and the Navy in port and in the littoral. Another great and recent book on non-naval maritime issues is journalist Ian Urbina’s The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier.

Beans, Bullets, and Black Oil by Worrall R. Carter

If General Omar Bradley was correct in his alleged quip that “Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics,” there is no better place to begin the discussion of naval logistics than with Beans, Bullets, and Black Oil. Carter details the logistics efforts of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific theater during the Second World War. The book covers many facets of modern naval logistics including expeditionary logistics, forward basing and sea basing, maintenance, and supply activities inside in contested areas. Many of the logistics fundamentals the Navy dealt with in the Second World War still apply today. If nothing else, the book is sure to give Marines and sailors alike a far greater appreciation of the immense logistical effort required to sustain maritime campaigns across an area as large as the Pacific. 


We would also like to emphasize the great periodical publishing on naval and maritime security issues. Proceedings is a professional publication of the United States Naval Institute, and it publishes a monthly issue with articles on a range of issues relevant to the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard online and in print. It also features regular essay contests on a variety of topics.

The U.S. Naval War College publishes the Naval War College Review quarterly but also has a variety of longer-form manuscripts and working papers. Because it is a government-funded entity, all War College publications are free to download from their website.

Lastly, the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) publishes a range of content on a near-daily basis related to maritime security, all of it fully available to read for free on their website. CIMSEC is U.S. based, but not U.S. centric – which makes for a more international perspective. They also release regular calls for submissions on specific topics.


We believe that these books and publications are an excellent jumping-off point for any landlubber looking to learn more about naval and maritime perspectives, but especially for Marines who recognize that these perspectives have been missing from their professional military education. This is by no means an exclusive list – there are dozens if not hundreds of more fantastic books out there. These are just our personal recommendations and books that have been important in our own learning. More books on naval integration may be in the making, and certainly many have already been published that cover the Navy-Marine relationship, just waiting to be discovered and shared.

Happy reading. 

Walker D. Mills is a Marine infantry officer currently serving as an exchange officer in Cartagena, Colombia. He has previously authored commentary for CIMSEC, the Marine Corps Gazette, Proceedings, West Point’s Modern War Institute and War on the Rocks. He is an associate editor at CIMSEC. He can be found on twitter @WDMills1992.

Joseph E. Hanacek is a Surface Warfare Officer stationed in San Diego, CA. He has served aboard USS Lake Champlain (CG-57) and USS Jackson (LCS 6), and recently graduated from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. He has previously authored commentary for Proceedings and War on the Rocks.

Featured Image: A Marine puts away returned books in the library aboard USS Bataan (LHD 5). (Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Aaron T. Kiser/Navy)

Sea Control 184 – Chokepoints and Littorals with Dr. Heather Venable and Director Valerie Jackson

By Jared Samuelson

Brute Krulak Center for Creativity and Innovation Director Valerie Jackson and Dr. Heather Venable join me to discuss the lessons learned from CIMSEC’s Project Trident Chokepoints and Littorals Week! We’ll be discussing whether chokepoints are still relevant, mine warfare, chokepoints as a temporal phenomenon, and the importance of presence.

Download Sea Control 184 – Chokepoints and Littorals with Dr. Heather Venable and Director Valerie Jackson


Chokepoints and Littorals Topic Week

Jared Samuelson is the Senior Producer of the Sea Control podcast. Contact him at

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.