Tag Archives: Japan

Keeping an Eye on the South (China Sea): Implications of Recent Incidents for China’s Claims and Strategic Intent


When discussing China’s strategy in the South China Sea it is first necessary to begin by asserting that there is in fact a strategy, which is readily discernible from public documents and pronouncements. There has been some disagreement over the degree of coordination between operational units and the central government,[1] with some analysts questioning if Beijing actually has a strategy in these areas,[2] while others have contended that China does in fact have a strategy that it regards as increasingly successful in achieving its desired objectives. According to Peter Dutton, the Director of the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College, this strategy is centered on the use of “non-militarized coercion” that has provided a means for controlled escalation.[3]

While the execution of this strategy may have at times in the past been poorly implemented due to the vague and developing nature of China’s strategic goals, there has been a concerted effort since and even before Xi Jinping came into power to at least increase coordination and oversight, if not clarify the strategic objectives themselves. This increased coordination and oversight is however primarily intended to better control the potential for escalation, and is part of a wider-evolving Chinese strategy to better protect what it views as its “maritime rights and interests” in the South China Sea. These new objectives do little more than consolidate previous strategic guidance, suggesting that existing patterns of expanded Chinese maritime presence and corresponding incidents at sea are more likely to persist than diminish in the years ahead, though they may be managed more closely by Beijing.

Since 2007 Chinese maritime law enforcement (MLE) agencies have been conducting what were termed “rights protection” (weiquan) missions in the South China Sea,[4] which slowly expanded in number and intensity over time, leading to an increase in operational confrontations and incidents at sea between not only China and its neighbors, but also the United States. This shift in tactics was readily evident in the composition of Chinese forces involved in these confrontations: where previously PLA-Navy forces had been primarily involved, according to a report by the U.S. Center for Naval Analysis (CNA), by 2009 the majority involved Chinese MLE agencies.[5]

While it is not known if the “rights protection” missions were at the time approved by key decision making bodies such as the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) or the Central Military Commission (CMC), a number of recent developments suggest that they were at some point subsequently approved at the highest levels of the Chinese government and are likely to form a central focus of Chinese strategy going forward. The work report of the 18th Party Congress at which the Chinese leadership transition occurred, defined China for the first time as a “maritime power,” one that will “firmly uphold its maritime rights and interests.”[6] Work reports from the Party Congress play a central role in determining the character and content of Chinese strategy going forward,[7] and the work report from the most recent would suggest that not only does China increasingly see itself as a maritime power, but that maritime “rights protection” missions will increasingly become a central component of China’s approach in the South China Sea (SCS).

Important institutional changes in line with these objectives had already begun to be implemented even before the Party Congress occurred, with the central leadership creating several leading small groups to oversee and improve coordination of maritime rights protection in the SCS. The Maritime Rights Office, a leading small group now headed by Xi Jinping, was created in 2012 reportedly to “coordinate agencies within China.”[8] The Maritime Rights Office falls under the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (FALSG), which is ‘widely believed to be the central policy making group’ in the Chinese Party apparatus. According to Bonnie Glaser, an analyst at the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS), the Maritime Rights Office includes “over 10 representatives from various units, including several from the PLA,” and is in charge of implementing guidelines handed down by the PBSC.[9] During the same talk, Ms. Glaser also noted the existence of a second leading small group, created specifically to handle issues in the South China Sea, which is also now headed by Xi Jinping.

That there had already been a discernible push by the central leadership in Beijing to improve coordination and oversight before the incident off the Natunas in March of 2013 calls into question analysis suggesting that a lack of coordination or oversight from Beijing is the central factor explaining Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. But this has never been as sufficient an explanation as some have implied, and it seems increasingly plausible that Beijing’s behavior can better be explained as part of a broader strategy. This strategy is evident in the decision of the central leadership to expand and utilize Chinese MLE agencies to more assertively protect what China considers to be its maritime rights and interests in disputed areas, often through the use of non-militarized coercion.

I Like the Islands Natuna.
                                                                    I Like the Islands Natuna.

This non-militarized coercion includes not only deterrent but also compellent dimensions, as was clearly demonstrated in the recent incidents involving Indonesia. Attempts by China to compel its neighbors into accepting its ‘historic rights’ in the SCS pose a potential threat to the international rules and norms embodied in UNCLOS, and to the extent that China’s “maritime rights and interests” are defined based on historical rather than legal grounds, an implicit challenge to the status quo.

While a more militarized approach by China in the East China Sea has become increasingly evident with the recent creation of the Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) there,[10] the non-military and military instruments of power have always been closely intertwined in Beijing’s evolving strategy. Military power has long been more visible in the ECS disputes, with serious incidents occurring involving naval vessels there.[11] At the same time however, China has been systematically and proactively asserting maritime jurisdiction through an enlarged and more aggressive MLE presence around the Senkakus, in an effort to ‘establish a new reality on the sea,’ as Scott Cheney-Peters of CIMSEC put it.[12

In addition to the Maritime Rights Office, Xi also became head of the “Office to respond to the Diaoyu (or Senkaku) Crisis” when it was created in September 2012, as part of the wider effort to increase coordination and institutional oversight.[13] According to reports there is solid evidence, including ‘from electronic intercepts’, indicating that “the movements of Chinese boats and ships were micromanaged by the new taskforce chaired by Xi.”[14] If accurate, these reports would provide conclusive evidence that Chinese actions in disputed areas of the East and South China Seas are in fact being directed and closely managed from Beijing as part of a wider strategy.

What might be viewed as two separate programs, military and civilian, are actually designed to be complementary parts of the same effort to protect China’s claims in areas like the South China Sea, with the MLE agencies playing the lead while reinforced in the background by the presence of much more capable naval warfighting platforms. Ties between the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) and the PLAN are close and longstanding,[15] and can be expected to strengthen in the future with the creation of the new China Coast Guard under SOA. The fact that military assets have taken a more prominent role in the disputes over the Senkakus suggests that the military and non-military means of coercion are part of a continuum of Chinese strategic options to exert leverage over other claimants to the disputes, to be used in accordance with the various operational responses of those claimant countries.

This could provide important lessons for claimants in Southeast Asia, where non-military forms of coercion are likely deemed sufficient by China to achieve its desired goals at present. Should this later prove to no longer be the case, perhaps after countries like Vietnam build up their own MLE forces (which they are in process of doing), Southeast Asia might also come to expect more militarized forms of coercion to begin stretching further south into the SCS. It is not lost on ASEAN that when declaring its ADIZ over the ECS China reserved the right to create additional ADIZ’s in the future, possibly in the South China Sea.[16] The fact that this announcement occurred almost simultaneously with the first deployment of China’s new aircraft carrier to the SCS was viewed with concern in the Philippines, where Foreign Secretary Del Rosario stated that there was a “threat that China will control the airspace (in the South China Sea).”[17]

While China may truly see its actions in a reactive or defensive light, others are unlikely to share this perception and may very well interpret more offensive intentions based on China’s own definition of the status quo, as well as its attempt to enforce it through coercive means. So long as China refuses to take into account the credible concerns of its neighbours and persists in carrying out its current strategy in the South China Sea, the disputes are likely to remain China’s “Achilles heel” in Southeast Asia,[18] and could constrain its larger diplomatic initiatives in the region. Along with the disputes will also remain the danger that misperception or miscalculation could render escalation less controllable in future incidents, a distinct possibility that seems destined to become more pronounced if the various means of coercion continue to evolve in an increasingly militarized direction.

Scott Bentley is an American PhD candidate at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

This post appeared in its original form at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s The Strategist.  


1. ICG Report. “Stirring Up the South China Sea (I),” Asia Report No. 223, 23 April 2012. Available online at http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/asia/north-east-asia/china/223-stirring-up-the-south-china-sea-i.aspx
2. Lyle Goldstein. “Chinese Naval Strategy in the South China Sea: An Abundance of Noise and Smoke, but Little Fire,” Contemporary Southeast Asia Vol. 33, No. 3 (2011), p. 320-347
3. http://csis.org/files/attachments/130606_Dutton_ConferencePaper.pdf
4. NIDS China Security Report 2011. Tokyo: National Institute of Defense Studies, p. 7. http://www.nids.go.jp/english/publication/chinareport/pdf/china_report_EN_web_2011_A01.pdf,
5. George P. Vance. “The Role of China’s Civil Maritime Forces in the South China Sea,” Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) Maritime Asia Project, Workshop Two: Naval Developments in Asia, August 2012, p. 103
6. Heath, Timothy. “The 18th Party Congress Work Report: Policy Blueprint for the Xi Administration,” Jamestown Foundation China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 23; November 30, 2012 http://www.jamestown.org/programs/chinabrief/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=40182&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=25&cHash=de4e16aa5513509eb1c0212ac6e401e4
7. Heath, Timothy. “What Does China Want: Discerning the PRC’s National Strategy,” Asian Security, 8:1, 54-72. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14799855.2011.652024#preview
8. Jane Perlez. “Dispute Flares Over Energy in South China Sea,” NY Times. December 4, 2012 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/05/world/asia/china-vietnam-and-india-fight-over-energy-exploration-in-south-china-sea.html?ref=world
9. Bonnie Glaser. Remarks at Brookings Institution, December 17, 2012. Panel 1 on “United States, China, and Maritime Asia.” Remarks (15:00-18:00) available at- http://www.brookings.edu/events/2012/12/17-china-maritime
10. http://thediplomat.com/2013/11/china-imposes-restrictions-on-air-space-over-senkaku-islands/
11. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/06/world/asia/japan-china-islands-dispute.html?hp&_r=0
12. https://cimsec.org/keeping-up-with-the-senkakus-china-establishing-a-new-reality-on-the-ground-er-sea/
13. http://lowyinstitute.org/publications/chinas-foreign-policy-dilemma
14. http://www.smh.com.au/world/all-the-toys-but-can-china-fight-20130426-2ikmm.html
15. http://news.usni.org/2013/11/25/clash-naval-power-asia-pacific
16. http://www.scribd.com/doc/188285766/Thayer-China-s-Air-Defence-Identification-Zone
17. http://globalnation.inquirer.net/92583/philippines-fears-china-wants-west-ph-sea-air-control
18. http://www.aspistrategist.org.au/chinas-achilles-heel-in-southeast-asia/

The East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ)

hyn竖图模板The big news of the day is China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over parts of the East China Sea, notably furthering the potential for conflict with Japan over the Senkakus/Diaoyus. Per guidelines released Saturday, the policy requires non-commercial aircraft in the space to pre-arrange flights with China’s government – effectively creating a pretense for action against Japanese military aircraft should they fail to comply with rules set for a space they likewise consider their own. Taiwan, which also maintains claims to islands it calls the Tiaoyutai, has voiced regret over the move.

Additionally, the zone may (unintentionally or intentionally) heighten tensions with South Korea as it extends close to South Korea’s Jeju island and appears to include the disputed submerged rock “Socotra Island” claimed by both South Korea as Ieodo and China as Suyan.

While the announcement by China’s Ministry of Defense was contained to the East China Sea, according to the Washington Post, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman, Yang Yujun, said that China would will create additional zones “at the right moment after necessary preparations are completed.”


LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

h/ts to @zacharykeck, @wayale, @dmhartnett, @washburnt for sources.

Shipping as a Repository of Strategic Vulnerability

The following article is special to our International Maritime Shipping Week. While we often discuss the threats to maritime shipping, this week looks at dangers arising from such global trade, and possible mitigations.

“Where the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.”

                                            Julian S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (1911)

In a global system marked above all by its complexity and interconnectedness, dependence on international shipping is universal. Yet some nations are far more vulnerable than others. As students of naval history well know, such vulnerability is often turned into a source of strategic leverage. To what extent can this leverage actually be exploited under 21st century conditions?

The needs of a nation, the opportunity of a foe
The needs of a nation, the opportunity of a foe

The globalized economy is, in a very real sense, a system of maritime exchange. As Thomas Friedman points out, as much as any other recent innovation, it was the shipping container that shaped our daily lives by making the economic transformation of the late 20th Century possible.[1] In the past two decades alone, the volume of sea-borne commerce has more than doubled, from 4 billion tons in 1990 to 8.7 billion tons in 2011. According to the International Maritime Organization, if the overall trend of trade growth observed over the last one and a half centuries continues, the figure will be 23 billion tons in 2060. And, while the exact share of global trade in goods that is moved by is a matter of some debate, it is sea well in excess of 75 percent by most reckonings. Further, it is clear that only cheap and plentiful shipping in a secure maritime environment can sustain this transformation. As a result, the stakes in international shipping are widespread.

But while any nation that wishes to prosper in the current global environment shares in the global dependency on shipping, the vulnerabilities that arise from it are distributed unevenly. This is mainly for two reasons: First, the degree to which specific nations sustain themselves by means of ship-borne imports, and to which they found their prosperity upon maritime exports, varies greatly. Secondly, depending inter alia on a country’s geopolitical setting, it will be more or less able to manipulate the degree to which it has to rely on shipping for its economic security. A resource-rich, continental-size state with landward access to sizeable markets – like Russia – has serious alternatives to maritime transportation. A small island nation with an export-oriented economy that runs on imported hydrocarbons – such as Taiwan – does not. It is where dependency gives rise to vulnerability that it turns into a potential source of leverage for outside powers.

Targeting Shipping for Strategic Effect

In what ways can vulnerabilities in the area of maritime transportation be exploited for strategic effect? There is, of course, a whole spectrum of options available to would-be-predators. Unilateral or multilateral sanctions have been a mechanism of choice since the end of the Cold War. But historically, it has been direct military action against the opponent´s shipping that has had the greatest impact on trade. Two main methods of waging war on commercial shipping can be distinguished, at least at an analytical level: (1) the blockade, and (2) guerre de course, or commerce raiding. The blockade relies on concentration and persistence to choke off the flow of sea-borne goods into enemy harbors, and as such will usually require some form of command of the sea. Commerce raiding, on the other hand, relies on dispersed, attritional attacks by individual vessels (or small groups of vessels), which makes it an attractive option for navies that find themselves in a position of inferiority. Both methods leverage the disruption of shipping to impose a cumulative toll on the adversary’s economy, which is expected to have a significant indirect impact on the war effort and/or erode the opponent´s will to resist.

Recsuing the survivorsHistorical examples of shipping being turned into a strategic lever are abundant. In the age of sail, preying on adversaries’ commerce was an integral part of most naval campaigns, including those of the Dutch Wars, the Seven Years’ War, and the Wars of the French Revolution. While it was seldom decisive, it was often “exceedingly painful,”[2] as Colin Gray observes. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, innovations in naval technology all but brought to its termination the “close blockade” of enemy harbors while also providing means – the submarine, torpedo, and naval mine – that would transform guerre de course into a method of total warfare. Much ink has been spilled on Germany’s failed – and strategically counterproductive – attempts subdue Britain by way of Handelskrieg (the German variation of commerce raiding), while a slightly more specialized literature focuses on the “distant blockades” of Germany that were a key feature of British naval operations in both World Wars.  However the case of Japan is most the instructive for the purposes at hand.

An island nation with an extremely circumscribed resource base, Japan was utterly dependent on ship-borne imports of a range of raw (and precursor) materials. In a very real sense, the Empire´s huge naval modernization program during the 1930s was based on its maritime commerce with the United States. Among other things, the U.S. covered 80 percent of Japanese liquid fuel needs. Given its political and military trajectory, Japan´s demand for key commodities was highly inelastic. The only alternative to trade with the United States and other potential adversaries was the unilateral extraction of resources from Japan´s near abroad – which could decrease its dependence on this particular foreign power, but (crucially) not on maritime transportation. When war came, the U.S. was able to exploit this vulnerability to devastating effect. Despite the many operational and technical inadequacies revealed by its initial operations in 1941-42, the U.S. Navy´s all-out war on Japanese shipping eventually came as close to strategically decisive as can reasonably be expected from any indirect use of military power.[3] Aided by the dire lack of defensive measures on the part of the Imperial Japanese armed forces, U.S. submarines alone sent more than 1,100 Japanese merchantmen to the bottom, and nearly as many were sunk by aircraft and mines. By the spring of 1945, Japanese sea-borne logistics had virtually ceased to exist, and so had Japan´s ability to sustain its war effort.

It has been suggested that other attempts throughout history at disrupting shipping flows might well have been equally successful in exploiting strategic vulnerabilities, had it not been for the predators´ “technical incapacity, operational ineptitude, and policy incompetence […] in the conduct of commerce raiding.”[4] Whether this assessment is accurate or not, there is little doubt that – despite the moral opprobrium that has often accompanied attacks on civilian vessels – the vulnerable dependence on sea-borne trade can be exploited to considerable effect. What relevance this finding might possess in an era of global economic integration is, however, much less clear.

Execute against China?

Until very recently, the explosion of maritime trade supporting economic globalization has not resulted in a resurgence of military strategies based on the (selective) disruption of international shipping. An important exception has been Iran´s focus on the Strait of Hormuz, which has played a critical role in Iranian strategic thinking since the 1980s. But it is the rise of China that has reignited naval strategists´ interest in shipping as a source of strategic vulnerability.

One set of scenarios that has been debated in detail involves Chinese offensive operations against Taiwan´s economic lifeline.  Given the island´s vulnerable dependency on shipping and the enduring limitations of the People´s Liberation Army with regard to a full-scale invasion, it is hardly surprising that the imposition of a coercive blockade should hold some appeal in PLA planning circles.

Considerably greater attention has been attracted, however, by the possibility that the People´s Republic might itself become the target of offensive military action against the sea-borne commerce on which the integrity of its economic model stamds. After all, 90 percent of China’s exports and 90 percent of its liquid fuel imports – which, as Sean Mirski observes are “functionally irreplaceable”[5] – are transported by sea. The oft-cited ‘Malacca dilemma’ is but one expression of a suspicion that now unites an increasing number of strategic thinkers, both Chinese and foreign: namely, that its dependence on maritime transportation may prove to be China´s Achilles’ heel on its way to greatness.

While the vulnerability of the PRC’s sea lines of communications has become an official justification for naval expansion and a rallying cry for naval nationalists, it is also a focal point for U.S. strategizing in the context of increasing access challenges in the Western Pacific. Thus, a blockade of Chinese (or rather China-bound) shipping has been debated both as an element of, and as an alternative to, the AirSea Battle Concept that is designed to enable operations in the face of an anti-access/area-denial challenge, such as U.S. military planners anticipate in case of conflict along the Chinese periphery.

Shipping LanesWhile Western treatments of the subject tend to agree that a blockade would be militarily feasible – given an adequate investment of resources – and could have a very considerable impact on the Chinese economy, the assumptions under which they arrive at these conclusions are extremely restrictive. For example, Mirski assumes that (1) the U.S.-China conflict in question would not be limited in scope, yet would stop well short of nuclear use, (2) the U.S. would find itself in the position of defender of the status quo against a blatantly aggressive China, (3) the U.S. would be able to build a coalition that includes Russia, India, and Japan; and (4) under these conditions, a ‘sink-on-sight’ policy towards civilian vessels in China’s near seas would be politically viable. Even with these preconditions, he concludes that despite the American blockade “China would be able to meet its military needs indefinitely.”[6]

Recent publications also points to changes in the nature of international shipping itself as potential complicating factors: in a prospective blockade scenario, few – if any – civilian vessels would fly the Chinese flag and, given the practice of selling and reselling cargo on spot markets, a ship´s final destination might not be known until it actually enters port.[7] But while Mirski’s proposal of instituting a system of digital navigational certification is ingenious, he dodges the broader question of how the United States and the nations of the Asia-Pacific would deal with the myriad repercussions of what would amount to a major disruption of the globalized economic sphere for an extended period of time.

Conclusion: Return of the commerce raiders?

If nothing else, the current debate about a U.S. naval blockade of China reveals that – much like their predecessors in past centuries – strategists in a globalized era see shipping as a repository of strategic vulnerability, particularly in cases of high-intensity conflict between great or medium-size powers. But while the potential leverage to be gained from nations’ dependence on international shipping is perhaps greater than ever before, the actual leverage might not correspond to planners’ expectations. The sources of this disconnect lie primarily in the political and economic context in which any concerted military action against sea-borne trade would be embedded. Given the U.S. Navy’s determined stewardship of freedom of navigation, the U.S. in particular would find itself on the wrong side of the norms it has been upholding for the past 60 years. And while the economic fall-out of any great power war is likely to be significant, the willful disruption of trade flows for strategic effect would only serve to accentuate the costs to regional allies and global trading partners.

As a result, unrestricted commerce warfare of the type pursued by the U.S. Navy against Japan in 1941-45 is just not in the cards. On the other hand, anything short of a strategically counterproductive ‘sink-on-sight’ policy might not produce sufficient strategic impact to justify the cost of embarking on such a risky course of action in the first place. Finally, once we move beyond the context of open interstate warfare, multilateral economic sanctions offer the possibility of causing many of the same effects at markedly lower cost to the attacker’s international standing.

Overall, the recent surge of interest in economic warfare strategies does little to encourage faith in the potential decisiveness of military actions against globalized trade, and serves to underline the practical and political challenges presented by any attempt at leveraging the vulnerabilities of a major trading power under 21st-century conditions. While the dependence on international shipping poses many risks, the strategic leverage it provides as a direct result of its crucial contribution to the prosperity of nations is now more apparent than real.

Michael Haas is a researcher with the Global Security Team at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich. The views presented above are his alone. Michael tweets @the_final_stand.

[1] Thomas L. Friedman (2006), The World Is Flat: The Globalised World in the Twenty-first Century (London: Penguin), 468.

[2] Colin S. Gray (1992), The Leverage of Sea Power: The Strategic Advantage of Navies in War (New York: Free Press), 13.

[3] Robert A. Pape (1996), Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP), 100-01.

[4] Gray 1992, 13.

[5] Sean Mirski (2013), “Stranglehold: The Context, Conduct and Consequences of an American Naval Blockade of China,” Journal of Strategic Studies 36:3, 389.

[6] Mirski 2013, 416.

[7] Ibid., 402; Gabriel B. Collins and William S. Murray (2008), “No Oil for the Lamps of China?,” Naval War College Review 61:2, 84.

Introducing the Izumo


Kyodo News/Associated Press
Kyodo News/Associated Press

Meet the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force’s (JMSDF) newest and largest member, the Izumo (DDH-183). With its 248-meter flight deck and 27,000-ton displacement, the new helicopter destroyer – capable of carrying up to 14 helicopters – dwarfs its 197-meter Hyuga-class cousins (the Hyuga, commissioned in 2009 and its sister ship Ise, which entered service in 2011).

As with Japan’s two other helicopter destroyers, the Izumo does not have fighter-launching catapults and is unable to support fixed-wing aircraft. Even so, eventual conversion of any of Japan’s three helicopter destroyers is not out of the question. Given the constraints of their design (such as small elevators and hangars), the conversion of the two older ships would be more difficult, while the Izumo’s larger dimensions could eventually accommodate aircraft such as the F-35B, the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) version of the new fifth-generation fighter.

Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images
Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images

The launch is sure to cause concern in China, which remains embroiled in a territorial dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. The islands are administered by Japan, but claimed by both sides. Although Tokyo has been careful to include tasks such as the transport of personnel and supplies in response to natural disasters high on the list of the new ship’s priorities, the destroyer presents a potent addition to the operational capabilities and strategic reach of the JMSDF. Crucially, it helps Tokyo keep pace with – or indeed, stay ahead of – China’s own rapidly growing navy. All recent and forthcoming changes to Japan’s defense policy aside, keeping pace with Beijing has proven a challenge as the country continues to feel the squeeze of its frail economy and the limits of its 1%-of-GDP defense spending cap. Even so, the Izumo may provide renewed impetus for those who believe that East Asia is already knee-deep in an arms race, as well as those who believe that Japan is emerging from its long pacifist slumber.

At the time of writing, an official reaction from Beijing has yet to be made, but it will be interesting to read in light of the still-fresh images of China’s second aircraft carrier under construction. Whatever the official line may be, the symbolism of choosing 6 August – the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 – to unveil Japan’s largest post-WWII ‘aircraft carrier’ is sure not to go unnoticed in Beijing.

Below is a comparison of the ship with the Ise in a photograph taken by the author in Kure in March this year.

Despite their different angles, both photographs hopefully provide a decent overview of the two ships and offer sharp eyes enough material for comparison. Even from this distance, the difference in size is apparent. Any insightful observations from our readers are welcome in the comments below.

Miha Hribernik is Research Coordinator at the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS) in Brussels and an analyst at the geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat. The views expressed here are entirely his own.