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Why Japan's Smaller Military Could Hold Its Own Against China

Japan Air Self-Defence Force jetU.S. Air ForceA Japanese F-15.

China’s soaring military spending — up 12.3% this year — and aggressive gestures in the region could be setting the scene for major conflict. With various countries feuding over Pacific territory, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe compared the ratcheting tensions toEurope before World War I.

China’s $US188 billion military budget far surpasses the $US49 billion budget of Japan, its biggest regional rival, even if it doesn’t come close to America’s budget of $US640 billion.

China’s military is also much bigger than Japan’s, with lots more equipment and 2.3 million active personnel compared to 58,000. Consequently, China ranks third on the Global Firepower Index, which heavily weights sheer numbers, behind the U.S. and Russia and ahead of Japan at tenth.

But is China’s military actually stronger than Japan’s?

First of all, it should be noted that any military conflict between China and Japan would likely draw in Japan’s superpower ally. The U.S. is bound by a mutual defence treaty to protect Japan, including the contested Senkaku islands, and it operates numerous military bases in Japan.

Even on its own, however, Japan’s smaller military has a qualitative advantage over China.

The majority of Chinese weapons systems are in various stages of decay, as detailed by Kyle Mizokami at War Is Boring. Only 450 of China’s 7,580 tanks are anywhere near modern. Likewise, only 502 of China’s 1,321 strong air force are deemed capable — the rest date to refurbished Soviet planes from the 1970s. Only half of China’s submarines have been built within the past twenty years.

China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is a refurbished Soviet ship from the 1980s that is too small to launch most long-range planes and will probably be limited to hugging China’s coast.

In comparison, Japan has been supplied with advanced military equipment from the U.S. In the coming year, it is slated to purchase new anti-missile destroyers, submarines, amphibious vehicles, surveillance drones, fighter planes, and V-22 Ospreys from the U.S. Japan also expects to receive deliveries of F-35s starting in March 2017.

The F-35 is Liaoning’s worst nightmare, China’s state-owned Global Times reported based on a Kanwa Asian Defence, which found that the F-35 could strike the Liaoning with hard-to-intercept joint strike missiles from a safe distance of 290km. The F-35 should also be able to locate and engage China’s main aircraft, the J-15, before the F-35 is even detected.

The Japanese islands are also well protected by a missile defence system equipped with Standard Missile-3 and Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptors. These missiles are capable of shooting down a ballistic missile both inside and outside of Earth’s atmosphere.

“Japan has the strongest navy and air force in Asia except for the United States,” Dr. Larry M. Wortzel, the president of Asia Strategies and Risks, said in a presentation at the Institute of World Politics last September. “They’re still restricted by Article 9 of the Constitution, which forever renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation … but you don’t want to mess with them.”

While Japan maintains a significant qualitative advantage, however, the vast size of China’s military should not be understated, nor its rapid expansion and modernization. No wonder Japan has responded with its first military expansion in more than 40 years.

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