Japan has formally unveiled its newest helicopter carrier Izumo (Japan uses the old DDH helicopter destroyer designation, because everything is a destroyer in Japan). With an announced complement of 14 helicopters, it is a formidable patrol and anti-submarine warfare asset. At 248 metres in length, it is comparable in size to the old American Essex class carriers (or the current American Wasp-class assault ships). Its predecessor in production, Hyuga, was smaller at 197 metres, closer to the size of V/STOL carriers, though of course neither class has any fixed-wing armament planned- yet.
Given China’s carrier program, which includes one fixed-wing carrier in commission and others building, it is tempting to see Hyuga and Izumo as a direct response. However, it is a decidedly confusing one. On the one hand, Japan has just demonstrated proof of concept that it can build carriers of any size in very short order, which should come as no surprise, and with help from the United States, there is little doubt that they could be converted for fixed-wing operations. On the other hand, the ships’ current ASW mission is valid given the advancement of China’s submarine fleet, though Izumo is rather large for the role. The other issue is why Japan would bother with this kind of subtlety rather than simply commission these hulls as fixed-wing carriers.
And that leads us to the basic confusion of Japan’s defence policy, predicated on self-defence, facing economic recession and reluctance to remove traditional budgetary constraints on the one hand, and on the other facing a less than friendly neighbour with a growing military and an historical animus toward Japan deeply embedded in popular nationalism. The current Japanese government has been branded militarist by China and South Korea for comments in the most recent defence white paper, and yet in concrete terms has made no procurement plans that would allow Japan to keep its edge at sea and in the air, as against China’s increasingly ambitious procurements. Izumo looks impressive, but without addressing the widening gaps in numbers of modern surface combatants and aircraft, it is a very big nil.
China is effectively scuppering ASEAN’s latest attempt to unite in the face of Chinese bullishness in ongoing island-chain disputes. China has essentially told ASEAN to forget any agreement on a code of conduct in such disputes anytime soon. China has a policy of discouraging any attempt at multilateral negotiation on such issues, or heaven forbid, international arbitration.
Ruan Zongze, Chinese diplomat and senior fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, has warned that Japan and the Philippines are making a serious mistake by allowing the United States to embolden them into challenging “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China” by daring to lay claim to islands which China has unilaterally declared that it owns. “No one in this world will try to contain China and no one in this world is capable of containing China,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute blogs about China’s maritime strategy challenges. While I don’t agree with all of their arguments (such as the contention that China could not assert control of the Taiwan Strait against US forces, or conversely the idea that the US would be quick to intervene against Chinese attempts to seize islands in the South China Sea by force, an odd argument considering that the US has already stood by while China did exactly that), the post does something important in emphasising the inherently tenuous nature of the Chinese maritime position.
As I’ve argued previously, China is looking at an economic umbilical cord that runs from the oil fields of the Middle East and Africa, across the Indian Ocean and through the Malacca Strait, through which a great deal of China’s trade runs. While China can try to ease its complete energy vulnerability (especially to India, whose mastery of the Indian Ocean China could not easily contest) by building trans-Asian pipelines, the fact remains that any major navy could cripple Chinese trade, and with it the Chinese economy, in a matter of weeks by sitting at one end of the Malacca Strait. To overcome this vulnerability, China would have to outmatch the United States, Japan and India combined. China can try to dominate the waters within the “First Island Chain”, but in the end, they are dependent on the good will of others, and there is nothing they can do about it.