For decades, aircraft carriers have been potent symbols of US military might. But now China has been boosting its own naval capability. Naval expert Alessio Patalano examines the latest maritime strategies in East Asia.
DW: The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported earlier this year that China had become the world's fifth largest exporter of major conventional arms, replacing the United Kingdom. Furthermore military expenditures in Asia in 2012 exceeded those of the European Union for the first time ever. Taking this into account, what are China's aircraft carrier ambitions?
Alessio Patalano: Chinese generals often speak of the importance for China to have at least one. One general was recently quoted remarking: "A nation cannot become a great power without having an aircraft carrier." Admiral Liu Quaqing - the chief architect of the modern Chinese naval plan - reportedly lobbied incredibly hard for carrier programs. From his point of view, they were essential for operations within China's immediate vicinities, such as Taiwan scenarios.
How has Japan reacted to growing Chinese naval development?
In 2004 and 2010, two defense reviews led to an increase in the pace of the structural transformation initiated in the mid-1990s. The documents sought to address Japan's responses to the systemic changes brought about by the attacks to the United States on September 11, 2001, North Korea's political brinkmanship and China's double-digit investments in military modernization.
For the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, the new national doctrine rewarded the ongoing transformation from a Cold War "sea denial" force to one engaged at various degrees of defense against maritime power projection exploiting sea control. It was aimed at defending Japan's maritime space, boosting expeditionary capabilities to contribute to international security and "good order at sea," as well as contributing to the safety of maritime activities.
What does this mean in terms of the Japanese fleet?
The fleet was to be reorganized, with the basic tactical formation shifting from an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) flotilla to an Escort Division with a helicopter destroyer (DDH). Interestingly the development of DDH 22, an enlarged version of the Hyuga-class vessel, with extended capacity for air assets and no vertical-landing position on the back, suggests an emphasis on fleet air defense and enhanced ASW.
It remains a conventional defense but more focused on air operations to extend the reach of the fleet out at sea, away from land-base air cover.
Is the debate over the sovereignty of the Senkaku islands (which China calls the Diaoyu) reminiscent of Europe on the brink of World War I in August 1914?
International escalation is the key element here and there is always the possibility of unintended consequences, as was the case in August 1914. In the Senkakus, there is the chance of the Japan Coast Guard and a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel clashing, or perhaps a Chinese turboprop aircraft downed in an accident. That could force the governments into the position of an escalation to war.
That is a possibility, but I think this is looking a lot less likely than it did a few months back. Last year, there were domestically generated problems because of political transitions in both countries. Both countries had political capital invested in the situation and neither side could give in. Now, the transition has been completed in both Japan and China, where the Communist Party is in control of the military.
Are those political changes reflected in the respective militaries?
In March, the Chinese government announced the restructuring of its military organizations, so they are now under one command. That is an important sign of their willingness to increase centralized control specifically to avoid unintended consequences. The Japanese Coast Guard is a very balanced and professional organization with a great deal of know-how and belief in itself. The same goes for the Maritime Self-Defense Force. Those two are the best guarantees of preventing anything from developing.
How important are aircraft carriers today?
One of the trends in military thinking at the moment is the debate over the future of aircraft carriers. Yes, China is developing the "carrier killer" ballistic missile, and while that is an important new threat that makes carriers more vulnerable, the jury is still out. Studies suggest that China's scientists are not there yet.
But the truth is that the aircraft carrier has always been a very vulnerable asset; it is a large target and even experts in anti-submarine warfare will tell you that theirs is a very inexact science. So the existence of new counter-measures to carriers should not be seen as a reason to render carriers obsolete. They have always exercised power and they still perform a lot of functions. 100,000 tons of steel and a lot of firepower can achieve a lot of things.
Patalano believes the existence of new counter-measures to carriers is no justification to render them obsolete
So can these developments be described as an arms race?
Whilst different in nature, both the Chinese and the Japanese programs are indicative of evolving maritime strategies, strategies gauging complex security equations - seeking to balance international ambitions, national power, economic needs, and the limits of political realities. China and Japan are bound to play a more substantial role in regional military dynamics.
Alessio Patalano is a lecturer at the Department of War Studies at King's College London, and specializes in Japanese naval history and strategy and contemporary maritime issues in East Asia. He is also the Director of the Asian Security & Warfare Research Group and Research Associate at the King's China Institute.