James Holmes from the Naval War College posted a good article at Foreign Policy on the growing strength of the Chinese navy. He acknowledges limits to the force’s current capabilities and a number of unknowns about the potency of its armaments and readiness of its crews, but is basically bullish about its long-term prospects, specifically noting that its development is proceeding rapidly and that it has “the most potential of any Asian navy.” I have no basis for disagreeing with those conclusions, and want to add simply that the navy’s rapid development has important implications for the Senkaku / Diaoyu dispute. Several observers have estimated that the current navy would be an approximate equal to its Japanese counterpart if the two fought over the Islands. But, as Holmes’s article suggests, the long-run seems clearly to favor China, particularly given the disparate economic trajectories of the two countries. As time passes, and assuming recent trends continue to hold, Japan’s ability to defend the Islands and deter Chinese aggression will likely wane.
All of which is to say that the present is the time of maximum leverage for Japan. You wouldn’t necessarily know it, however, from Japanese actions over the last couple of years. Tokyo has made few efforts to achieve a diplomatic or legal solution, and has instead focused on strengthening its own naval forces. The strategy appears to be one of attempting to match in kind China’s growing naval power. In the long run, I don’t see how this strategy is sustainable.